The Phoenix Zoo’s Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson Foundation Native Species Conservation Center announced the first-ever propagation of the threatened narrow-headed gartersnake (Thamnophis rufipunctatus).

In 2007, the Zoo received a small research population of wild-caught narrow-headed gartersnakes in hopes of developing a propagation and release program. On the morning of July 2, 2014, a four-year-old gave birth to 18 neonates in the Zoo’s specially designed outdoor Suzan L. Biehler Herpetarium. All 18 offspring are healthy and were observed capturing live fish within 48 hours. This reproductive event is the culmination of years of husbandry work and scientific research by the Zoo’s conservation staff. This significant birth comes at a critical time since on July 7, 2014 the species was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The Zoo has also developed a husbandry manual for this species that is currently in use by members of the GCWG.

Narrow-headed gartersnake in hand, Phoenix Zoo

“The birth of the narrow-headed gartersnakes here is a fulfillment of Phoenix Zoo’s commitment to supporting native species conservation and recovery”, says Stuart Wells, Director of Conservation sand Science at the Phoenix Zoo.  “Our dedicated staff has worked tirelessly for many years to achieve this goal.  We are proud of this accomplishment and pleased to contribute to the recovery of this species.”

The narrow-headed gartersnake is a unique, highly aquatic species. Its numbers have been declining throughout its range in Arizona and New Mexico for over a decade. Many factors are contributing to the decline including drought, non-native invasive species, wildfire and agricultural/urban encroachment. Beginning in 2006, the Gartersnake Conservation Working Group (GCWG), a multi-partner, collaborative effort, was formed by US Fish and Wildlife Service to help conserve and recover the northern Mexican gartersnake and the narrow-headed gartersnake.

“The narrow-headed gartersnake is a mid- to high-elevation, stream-dwelling species that is very sensitive to environmental and physical stress”, explains Jeff Servoss, US Fish and Wildlife Service Chair of the Gartersnake Conservation Working Group. “These traits make this species a unique challenge for those trying to not only keep them alive in captivity, but also trying to produce offspring.  After many years of trying, by many different institutions, the Phoenix Zoo has finally produced viable narrow-headed gartersnakes.  This achievement is very noteworthy and a testament to the Zoo’s relentless effort to identify the variables that have prevented breeding in the past. This is a significant achievement and a giant step forward for gartersnake conservation.”

The offspring are being head-started for a period of six to nine months before the majority is released to the wild. The remaining few will be retained for the breeding program. The Zoo is proud of this accomplishment and appreciates the opportunity to support the conservation of wildlife in Arizona and throughout the world.

Visit our narrow-headed gartersnake page to learn more about this species and the conservation efforts underway at the Phoenix Zoo.