The Eastern Indigo Snake Lives in Gopher Tortoise Burrows

By: Desiree Bowie  | 
Close-up of snake head as the snake slithers through shallow water
The trademark indigo sheen on this snake's skin makes it a beautiful but tragically endangered species. Jeremy Woodhouse / Getty Images

As the longest snake native to North America, the eastern indigo snake is distinguished by its striking, indigo-blue sheen, a unique feature that sets it apart from other snakes. Unfortunately, this beautifully hued snake has become endangered.

Once thriving across the southeastern United States, eastern indigo snakes face several threats contributing to their decline, including habitat loss due to development and agriculture, mortality from vehicle strikes and collection for the pet trade.


In this article, we'll explore this creature's habitat, behavior and the critical conservation efforts underway to protect it from extinction.

Types of Indigo Snakes

Native to the southeastern United States, the eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi) is the most well-known species within the genus Drymarchon.

Each species and subspecies has adapted to their specific environments, ranging from the forests and coastal areas of the southeastern United States to the diverse landscapes of Mexico and Central America.


  1. Texas indigo snake (Drymarchon melanurus erebennus): Found in southern Texas and into Mexico, this subspecies is known for its large size and dark coloration, with some individuals displaying a more reddish-brown hue on the chin, cheeks and throat.
  2. Central American indigo snake (Drymarchon melanurus): This species has a range extending from Mexico through Central America. These snakes are similar in appearance to the eastern indigo but tend to have a lighter, more variable coloration.
  3. Indigo snake (Drymarchon corais): This large, nonvenomous colubrid snake is notable for its dark body and contrasting bright yellow or cream-colored tail. Native to Central and South America, this agile and strong hunter inhabits diverse environments and is popular in the exotic pet trade due to its striking appearance and intelligence.
  4. Margarita indigo snake (Drymarchon margaritae): Little is known about this relatively new species of nonvenomous snake, which is exclusively found on the Margarita Islands, situated near the coast of Venezuela.

Eastern Indigo Home Range

The eastern indigo thrives in a range of habitats, including longleaf pine forests, a habitat that has been significantly reduced and fragmented due to human activities.

These forests are characterized by open, sunny patches interspersed with areas of dense vegetation, providing the perfect balance of basking spots and cover for the snake. The sandy soils of these forests are also crucial for the snake's breeding and burrowing needs.


You can also find this federally threatened species in wetlands, including swamps, freshwater marshes and river floodplains. These wet areas are vital for providing the snake with a diverse diet, which includes small mammals, birds, amphibians and even other snakes.

The proximity to water bodies also offers a respite during hot periods and a refuge during wildfires, a natural phenomenon that shapes much of its pine forest habitat. Like many other snakes, eastern indigos are excellent swimmers.

Despite its adaptability, the snake's reliance on these specific habitats makes it vulnerable to environmental changes. Habitat destruction and fragmentation pose significant threats, highlighting the need for conservation efforts to preserve these unique ecosystems.

Gopher Tortoise Burrows: A Safe Haven for Eastern Indigos

Another critical habitat for the snake is gopher tortoise burrows, essential for shelter from predators and extreme weather, hibernation and thermoregulation. (This refers to how living things control their body heat, keeping themselves from getting too hot or cold.)

The extensive underground tunnels excavated by gopher tortoises play a vital role in providing shelter and habitat for eastern indigo snakes and other wildlife species.

Snakes seek refuge within these burrows during adverse weather conditions or to evade predators. The burrows also attract rodents and other small animals seeking refuge or food, providing the snakes with a reliable source of prey.

Finally, gopher tortoise burrows can function as nesting sites for female eastern indigo snakes.


What Does the Eastern Indigo Snake Eat?

Drymarchon couperi is a generalist and opportunistic predator with a diet encompassing a wide range of prey. The nonvenomous snake actively hunts for mice, rats and even small rabbits across various habitats. Birds and their eggs are also on its menu; indigos can climb trees to raid nests or capture roosting birds.

The eastern indigo will also nosh on reptiles, including both venomous and nonvenomous snakes, lizards and turtles. Its immunity to the venom of certain native snakes, like rattlesnakes, allows it to feed on them safely.


Amphibians, such as frogs and toads, especially in areas near water bodies, are part of its diet as well.

Occasionally, the snake may also eat fish, particularly in wetland environments. Employing a hunting strategy that involves overpowering its prey rather than constricting or envenomating, the eastern indigo snake can consume prey significantly larger than expected for its size.



Not much is known about the mating process of eastern indigos. Here's what has been confirmed so far.

  • The snakes typically enter their breeding season between November and April. During this period, they engage in mating behaviors.
  • The females may be able to store sperm, allowing for deferred fertilization of eggs.

Following the breeding season, nesting occurs from May to August. Females lay clutches of four to 12 eggs, either annually or biennially, depending on various factors, including environmental conditions and individual health.


The eggs, which hatch approximately 90 days after being laid, are often deposited in gopher tortoise burrows, a protected and stable environment for the developing eggs.

There is also intriguing evidence suggesting the possibility of parthenogenesis in eastern indigos, a form of asexual reproduction. Cases have been observed where virgin females have laid eggs, although the viability and development of these eggs require further study.


Conservation Status

The conservation status of Drymarchon couperi varies across their range, but they face significant conservation challenges.

In several states within their habitat range, including Florida, Georgia and Alabama, eastern indigo snakes are classified as "endangered." This designation reflects the declining populations and habitat loss experienced in these regions.


These snakes confront various threats, primarily habitat destruction caused by urban development, agricultural activities and logging. Road mortality, where vehicles strike snakes while crossing roads, is another pressing concern.

Conservation efforts are actively underway to protect eastern Indigos, including initiatives such as habitat restoration, captive breeding programs and measures to mitigate the impact of roads on snake populations.

The nonpoisonous snakes are considered keystone species due to their significant influence on ecosystems. Consequently, safeguarding their populations is essential for maintaining the ecological balance of their habitats.


Protecting the Eastern Indigo

The conservation efforts for the eastern indigo are comprehensive and collaborative, involving a range of organizations and strategies. One of the key initiatives is the development of Standard Protection Measures by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). These measures are designed to minimize adverse impacts to the snakes during construction projects in Florida and Georgia.

The plan includes guidelines for educating construction personnel about the snake, its protected status and what to do if a snake is observed at a project site. It also provides specific instructions for construction activities, such as conducting thorough inspections of worksites for snakes and stopping activities if a snake is found.


Another significant effort is the captive breeding and reintroduction program led by the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens' Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC). This program is focused on reestablishing eastern indigo snake populations in areas where they have been extirpated.

Between 2010 and 2019, 169 eastern indigos were released in the Conecuh National Forest in southern Alabama. Between 2017 and 2019, 47 snakes were released in The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve in the Florida Panhandle.

These efforts are part of a long-term reintroduction program involving multiple partners, including USFWS, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and several others.


The Future of Eastern Indigo Snakes

In Aug. 2023, the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation at the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Garden in Lake County, Florida, celebrated the hatching of 76 eastern indigo snake hatchlings.

Additionally, they were incubating 47 more eggs, with three already in the process of hatching. Hatching for these snakes can span several hours to a full day, and the rest of the viable eggs were expected to hatch by mid-September of that year.


In 2023 alone, the Center had already released several eastern indigo snakes into their native habitats, notably the Conecuh National Forest and the Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve.

This was part of their ongoing effort to reintroduce this threatened species to its natural territory, significantly contributing to the number of reintroduced snakes in these areas. The Orianne Center's efforts are instrumental in the species' recovery in areas like the Conecuh National Forest.

This article was created in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.