A Golden Opportunity
The golden lancehead Bothrops insularis is a critically endangered snake from Brazil that needs all the help it can get. In 2007, when we first started a conservation program for the species, less than ten animals were officially in captivity. I say “officially” because the illegal animal trade is one of the primary factors in the lancehead’s decline.
In 2013, almost seven years later, I found myself frozen in wonder and anticipation watching a female giving birth to the 48th golden lancehead in captivity. This adorable newborn (yes, adorable), first seen during an ultrasound exam a couple of months earlier, is a valuable member of the captive population of 90 golden lanceheads in Brazil. With this birth, the number of captive-born lanceheads now exceeds those brought in from the wild. I was fortunate enough to record the birth and to be the first to document parturition behavior in this species.
In addition to studying wild golden lanceheads in their only native habitat on Quiemada Grande Island, I spend quite some time caring for the captive group at the Universidade Cruzeiro do Sul in Sao Paulo. Every day I learn something new about them.
For example, I placed some artificial vines inside their enclosures and the semi-arboreal lanceheads immediately started to climb on them. Actually, some of them will spend several days high on the vines without coming to the ground where the water bowls are placed. I was concerned about this until I observed these clever snakes taking advantage of the sprinkler system that simulates rain in the enclosures. Just the other day I saw how they manage to drink the water, even when living up in the vines.
One snake was tightly coiled when I turned on the sprinklers and as soon as some water accumulated inside the coil, it started to drink from this “natural bowl.” Because their native island does not have ponds or creeks, they receive fresh water only from rain, so it is easy to understand why the snakes developed this behavior to collect and drink water.
The golden lancehead captive breeding program is a collaborative effort between several institutions and professionals to help an endangered species. It is not the end, but the beginning of a conservation opportunity cycle. We learn valuable information from captive animals that can be applied to the wild population, and our observations of free ranging snakes aids in our understanding of the needs of captive specimens.
After almost seven years of concentrated study of the golden lancehead, we know many health and reproductive parameters of wild and captive animals as well as mating and parturition behavior.
The conservation program is now taking a new step into the development of techniques for assisted reproduction like artificial insemination and semen cryopreservation. Thanks to a generous donor, a portable programmable freezer will be purchased to cryopreserve semen. Initially, we will test freezing protocols with semen collected from captive snakes using the non-invasive techniques developed in part with red diamond rattlesnakes in the native habitat surrounding the Safari Park. You might (rightfully) ask, “How do you collect semen from a rattlesnake?” and I would answer, “Very carefully and with a good sense of humor.”
Once protocols are optimized, we will collect semen from wild lanceheads. Frozen semen and artificial insemination can then be employed to establish a genetic flow between captive and wild populations without removing additional snakes from their home on the Island.
We expect to apply the lessons learned from this “golden opportunity” to the conservation of many other endangered snakes in Brazil. We hope to bring more exciting news from field very soon.
Rogério Zacariotti, Scientist, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.
Photos by the author and Elmer Alexander Genoy-Puerto.