NAU is starting a new housing construction project, but not the kind you might think.

The NAU Green Fund, to which each student pays $5 a year to fund projects that increase on-campus sustainability, is helping to fund a new vivarium to house narrow-headed garter snakes.

The narrow-headed garter snake is found only in certain areas in the Southwest and is currently on the federal list of threatened species. The species is considered threatened because of habitat alteration and the introduction of non-native invasive predatory species.  

“They already started with a limited range, and now with all the habitat changes and the non-native species, they’ve really started to decline,” said NAU researcher in the Biological Sciences Department and leader of the vivarium project Erika Nowak.

While the narrow-headed garter snake does not live specifically in the Flagstaff area, it can be found in the Oak Creek Canyon area and the population has experienced particular distress due to habitat destruction from the recent Slide Fire of summer 2014. NAU is creating the vivarium with the goal of restoring this population and others across the region.

“Our long-term goal here is to basically set up a breeding facility for these snakes so that we can help recover the species and help return animals to the wild,” Nowak said. 

NAU is the perfect place to house the garter snake because of the snake’s preference of colder weather and because of the university’s adjacency to its habitat in Oak Creek Canyon.

“Proximity to their natural habitat is one of the positive things about NAU having a garter snake type program here,” said NAU’s animal care manager and a co-PI of the vivarium project Thomas Greene. “There are native populations close by, so if there [are] snakes found in the wild that are in danger, then they can as part of the program, potentially be brought here and then released later on.”

The vivarium will be patterned after a garter snake enclosure in the Phoenix Zoo, which also works to save and breed narrow-headed garter snakes. The Phoenix Zoo will work with NAU during the construction of its own enclosure.

An existing facility at NAU will be retrofitted to construct the vivarium, which will be composed of a plexiglass enclosure inside an aviary cage, according to Nowak. Roughly three feet of sterilized dirt will be placed on the bottom of the cage to stabilize the ground temperature. Climate-controlled boxes and basking rocks will also be placed in to allow the snakes a place to raise and lower their body temperature. A water feature such as a stream or pond will also be added to the habitat.

“Naturalistic type features, soil, rocks, vegetation, water, lighting and all these others things are what the snakes really need to be given for them to be able to be either released or to propagate in captivity,” Greene said.

The cool temperatures in the Flagstaff area will eliminate the need for constant air conditioning and water cooling measures that are used in other garter snake enclosures such as the Phoenix Zoo enclosure. This, and the retrofitting of the existing facility in the construction of the vivarium, will help keep the costs and emissions of the project low.

While students will not be able to view the vivarium in person due to the fragile nature of the species and the risk of exposing them to bacteria and germs, Nowak is hoping cameras can be installed inside the enclosure that will provide a bird’s eye view of the snakes’ daily lives. 

“We’ll be streaming the data so people can see that,” Nowak said.

The project will involve student researchers and will work to build knowledge about the narrow-headed garter snake that can potentially aid the protection of the species in the future.

“Dr. Nowak’s work combines a lot of elements that NAU is built on: research, the environment and teaching,” said director of public affairs Tom Bauer. “She is working with undergraduate and graduate students to save a species . . . the teaching and learning elements embodies NAU’s mission.”

In addition to the NAU Green Fund, the vivarium will also receive funding from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, United States Forest Service and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.