WASHINGTON, May 8 (UPI) -- Seven Louisiana pine snakes have been released into a pine forest in an effort to restore America's rarest snake to its natural habitat, scientists say.
The 6-month-old, 3-foot-long snakes from a captive breeding program were released into a restored longleaf pine stand in the Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana, the U.S. Forest Service reported Monday.
The pine snake, which can reach 4 to 5 feet as an adult with a striking pattern of black, brown and beige, is a rare sight in its native range in east-central Texas and across Louisiana, officials said.
A non-venomous species, the Louisiana pine snake spends most of its time underground in burrows of its favorite prey, gophers, but its native habitat largely disappeared due to commercial logging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There is concern that snakes in captive breeding programs, which are the progeny of only 16 founder individuals caught in the wild, may be producing snakes that are not genetically diverse enough to survive when released.
"In the best-case scenario, there would still be Louisiana pine snakes out there that we've never caught that can breed with the released snakes," Craig Rudolph, Forest Service Southern Research Station research ecologist, said.
"We have traps operating for thousands of trap days a year in Texas, for instance, and haven't caught a single snake in three years."
Only time will tell whether the Louisiana pine snake can be sustainably restored to longleaf pine ecosystems in its native range, the researchers said.