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SCCF tank talks help raise awareness on local species

By Staff | Jul 27, 2016

SCCF’s director of the wildlife habitat management program Chris Lechowicz holds an ornate diamondback terrapin. ASHLEY GOODMAN

To help residents and visitors understand what exactly is lurking in their backyards, the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation holds tank talks once every two weeks at the SCCF Nature Center.

Chris Lechowicz, director of the wildlife habitat management program at SCCF, said the tank talks are important because they see a lot of people come to Sanibel on vacation and many of those people do not know what animals are inhabiting the island.

“They go to the store and buy little field guides but they don’t really get a lot of those animals. The Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation is a good place to educate people,” Lechowicz said. “A big problem is when people come to Florida, they think that all the snakes are venomous and that everything is going to bite them, they’re afraid to do things so we try to educate them.”

During the tank talks, the stars of the show are Lucky, a softshell turtle and Indie, an indigo snake. Guests have the opportunity to hold Indie during the presentation. The tank talks are headed either by a biologist or an intern.

Unfortunately, there are not any wild indigo snakes on Sanibel or Captiva. Lechowicz said that they have died out due to getting hit by cars. However, they can be found on Pine Island, North Captiva and Cayo Costa.

Chris Lechowicz, director of the wildlife habitat management program at SCCF, holds an ornate diamondback terrapin. ASHLEY GOODMAN

“The indigo snake has the largest home range of any of our snakes in the U.S., and it covers a lot of territory in a day. A male can go up to two miles in a day. The problem is that they have to go across roads, so they get hit by cars on a regular basis. Sanibel and Captiva, historically, had a good population of these snakes but unfortunately because of the large roads we have, the snakes one by one, got hit by cars,” he said.

It does not help that their breeding season is during the winter, which is the busiest time on the islands.

“They’re always on the move during breeding season, so they’re more prone to being hit,” Lechowicz said.

To help snakes and other animals get across the road safely, The “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and SCCF have discussed possibly elevating the road and creating a “wildlife pass” so animals can avoid being hit by cars.

Indigo snakes can be found in Florida and Georgia. Previously, they were found in southern Mississippi and Alabama. Lechowicz said there are seven indigo snakes in captivity on the island. SCCF has eight eggs that are expected to hatch the first week of August. He plans to give away the snakes to education centers. Once the snakes are fully grown, the females can get up to 5 to 6 feet. Males can grow anywhere from 5-1/2 to 7 feet.

Florida mud turtle. ASHLEY GOODMAN

The indigo snakes will feed on anything they can swallow. Lechowicz refers to them as a “garbage disposal.” Snakes and mice make up a large amount of their diet.

In 2012, Lechowicz started the Sound Eastern Indigo Snake Project. Lechowicz inventories indigo snakes on the barrier islands of Sound to develop a population estimate and to find out any ways to protect the endangered indigo snakes on the barrier islands. Every snake that is captured is measured, marked, microchipped then released at the site of the capture.

The turtles on the other hand, that are also a part of the tank talks, are not as threatened as the indigo snakes. The terrapin turtles are very adaptable. They can live in brackish or salt water. The terrapins SCCF has were either CROW’s or they were bred.

The terrapins live all the up from Massachusetts, down to the Florida Keys then all the way to Texas. Lechowicz has about 140 of them marked on the islands. They typically feed on snails.

Lucky, the softshell turtle, was acquired from the Lee County Parks and Recreation.

Florida mud turtle. Chris Lechowicz

“Lucky was one that was found somewhere where no one knew where it was from and they needed a home for it, so that’s how she ended up here,” Lechowicz said.

SCCF does not plan on ever releasing Lucky, Indie or any of the animals they have at the center.

“Once you keep an animal in captivity for awhile and it’s been exposed to other animals, you don’t want to let them go in the wild because there’s all kinds of nasty diseases out there from people letting pets go into the wild populations. From them being with other animals, they pick up new kinds of germs. You don’t want to expose wild animals to that,” Lechowicz said.

For more information on reptiles and amphibians living on the island, you can learn more about them in a book Lechowicz co-authored. The name of the book is Amphibians & Reptiles of Sanibel and Captiva Islands.

The next tank talks will be held Aug. 9 and Aug. 23 at 10 a.m. at the SCCF Nature Center. The cost is $5 per adult. Members and children are free. For more information on the tank talks call (239) 472-2329 or visit sccf.org.

Chris Lechowicz holds a 4-year-old male indigo snake. ASHLEY GOODMAN