The Great Snake Invasion
Imagine wading through murky, sticky, bug-infested swamps in the heat and humidity of Floridian summer. As you fight the sticky mud, you realize that you couldn't run if you wanted to - which was very bothering, since the alligator that has been following you the past thirty minutes recently disappeared under the murk.
If you can picture this in your mind, then you have a great idea as to what it's like tracking Burmese pythons in the Everglades. Dealing with the environment is one thing, but you also have all of your gear - your telemetry antenna, data entry booklet, and cell phone are all in the backpack slung across your back. If you fall, you destroy thousands of dollars of data. If you get attacked or hurt, your only solace is a cell phone with no reception. And the python team does this willingly on a daily basis - and we wouldn't change it for the world.
Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) is an invasive species in southern Florida, occupying most of the Greater Everglades Ecosystem. This species was introduced sometime in the late 1900s, released by pet owners (accidentally and purposely) who could no longer care for the animal.
It's difficult to say exactly when the population of Burmese pythons became self sufficient (in other words, they gained the ability to maintain their own population by breeding in the wild), but the species has become established within Florida within the past twenty years, possibly for good. Many people are sure that it will be impossible to irradiate the species in Florida, but research into Burmese python reproduction, behavior, and management techniques is ongoing.
The Python Research Team at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples, FL hopes to understand how this species is using its new habitat as well as discover the most efficient population management techniques. During my time as a Conservation Associate with the Python Team, I helped track 25 individual snakes across the Greater Everglades Ecosystem using radio telemetry techniques. I learned how this invasive species was destroying the Everglades miraculous ecosystem, and knew that the world needed to understand how Burmese pythons behaved in their new habitat to help restrict the population growth in the future.
At one point during my internship, a fisherman contacted the project letting us know that he had found a python miles off shore. I had recently conducted a literature review on Burmese pythons, and had never heard of an individual being that far from shore. Therefore, I asked my advisor if I could look further into the event, and found that this was indeed the furthest a python had been seen from land. Therefore, I wrote and published this novel observance of a Burmese python over 25 kilometers out to sea. This observation added to the arsenal of limited knowledge available on this species, and I was glad that I could contribute a new clue as to how this species moved around Florida so that, potentially, wildlife managers can restrict or remove the species population across its invasive range.
During the spring, we drove through farms, subdivisions, and state parks across Collier County, peaking through the tall grass to find pythons. One study has shown that even expert snake hunters only have a detectability rate of 90% for these snakes, but direct searchers are currently the only way to catch these snakes. Traps, poisoned bait, and biological control have all been thought of but never implemented nor has a proper design been created. Thus our team sought to establish the best techniques for python removal from the only known technique at the time: catching them by hand.
This method proved to be fairly efficient in the springtime since this is the Burmese python mating season, and so the snakes could be found in large breeding bundles. On February 15, 2018, we captured one of the largest breeding congregations known to date: a group
of six males and one female, all wrapped around each other in the tall para grass in a sacrifice plot of a giant tomato farm.
I also helped with a study on python cortisol levels obtained from serum and skin swab samples. This project was led by a Masters student at the University of Florida; you can discover more about this project here -
As with most research endeavors, I wish I could say that we solved the python invasion issue while I interned at the Conservancy; of course, this is not how it usually works. Understanding how pythons are interacting with and impacting the Everglades ecosystem will take many years, if not decades, to accomplish. Learning how to remove this species from its invasive range may never occur, but one thing I take away from this internship is not how this species is invading Florida, but how the species' population is currently listed as Vulnerable within its native range. We are currently attempting to irradiate the species in Florida, but what will we do if the species goes extinct in its native range? Will we still relentlessly hunt these animals in the Everglades, or will we think of the Burmese python differently if it ever disappears from Southeast Asia? We may never know the answer, but this question highlights the complexities of species conservation that biologists must face everyday: the answer is rarely, if ever, clear-cut, and we must make decisions based on the science that we know, and hope that our decision was the right one.
Learn More about the Python Research Project: