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Earth Notes: NAU’s Snake Vivarium

Iain Emmons

When the Slide Fire hit Oak Creek Canyon in 2014, biologists were gravely concerned for the resident population of threatened narrow-headed gartersnakes. 

These worries led to creation of a facility to raise these snakes in captivity at Northern Arizona University. With assistance from multiple partners – NAU’s Green Fund, Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Geological Survey and other federal agencies, as well as private donations, the university has built a new vivarium on campus.

This essentially high-end snake hotel benefits from detailed knowledge of these reptiles gained from seventeen years of field studies. It simulates the snakes’ natural habitat with a waterfall, riffles, pond areas, rocks for basking, heated hibernation caves, native plants, and natural light. What’s lacking are predators like non-native crayfish.

Federal accreditation of the facility means stringent standards, with disease control a particular challenge. The snakes are tested regularly, especially for Mycobacteria that foster nasty diseases that can wreak havoc on gartersnakes, as well as native speckled dace and hatchery trout the snakes eat.

Students provide most of the day-to-day care of the gartersnakes in the vivarium, an unprecedented educational opportunity for hands-on work with a federally threatened species.

With the ultimate goal of encouraging the snakes to breed and reintroducing them back into the wild, you could say this is a gartersnake spa with a crucial purpose! 

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