DNR herpetologist team up with Sycamore Land Trust to search for endangered Kirtland’s snakes

INDIANA – Indiana DNR herpetologists have teamed up with Sycamore Land Trust to search for state-endangered Kirtland’s snakes on Sycamore Land Trust properties in south-central Indiana.

Kirtland’s snake

This project is part of a larger effort to understand the amphibians and reptiles of the Beanblossom Creek basin – a region (indicated on the map below) of focus where Sycamore Land Trust is restoring habitats and connecting ecosystems along the creek’s water course in Brown and Monroe counties.

Kirtland’s snakes have been found in the Beanblossom Creek area since the 1980s, but the extent of their occurrence in the watershed is still being explored. In 2021, DNR herpetologists deployed coverboards at sites along Beanblossom Creek with hopes that the snakes (which like to hide in damp, shaded substrates) could be found beneath them.

One type of coverboard

Their plan worked – Kirtland’s snakes were identified during coverboard checks soon after they were put down, then was found at a second Sycamore Land Trust property in 2022.

Another type of overboard

In 2023, herpetologists expanded their surveys to new areas along Beanblossom Creek, leading to the discovery of three additional colonies. These discoveries help Sycamore Land Trust develop its site management plans to preserve good habitats for these endangered snakes.

Kirtland’s snakes

The Kirtland’s snakes are a small and secretive species. Certain aspects of their biology are understudied and thus not well understood. The snakes’ small size and burrow-dwelling habits make them difficult to track using radio telemetry techniques, so herpetologists must rely on sightings to confirm the species’ presence in an area and estimate movement patterns. Because of these limitations, little is known about their home range. In some areas of the state where the snakes were historically located, especially in northern Indiana, they have not been observed in decades. In fact, many of the known Indiana populations are based on the observation of a single snake. 

As part of the collaborative DNR and Sycamore Land Trust Kirtland’s snakes study, biologists are exploring a photographic technique to identify snakes by their head and body markings. When the snakes are found, herpetologists take photographs of the snakes from different angles, including their heads and distinctly marked bellies, which are reddish-pink and lined with rows of small, dark spots. Identifying individual Kirtland’s snakes using this technique will allow researchers to monitor the movements of individual snakes and compare populations between sites.

As DNR and Sycamore Land Trust continue studying the status of Kirtland’s snakes in the Beanblossom Creek corridor, they also are also tracking the species’ conservation status across the state of Indiana. If you see one of Kirtland’s snakes, please help by submitting your observation to DNR herpetologists at HerpSurveys@dnr.IN.gov. In your submission, be sure to include a photo, the date of observation, and the location of where the snakes were found.

The snakes are most active during the spring (April–June) and late fall (October–November). These reports are a tremendous help to the DNR. Indiana residents have already begun contributing to Kirtland’s snakes observations this year, with two new snakes identified in a new section of the Beanblossom Creek watershed.