Over the last few decades, Florida's invasive Burmese python problem has grown at a startling rate. The pythons, released either by accident or on purpose, have gained a foothold in the state and researchers are scrambling to find ways to minimize the damage they're causing.
In its native range in Southeast Asia, the future of the species is questionable. The IUCN lists it as vulnerable to extinction. Yet in Florida, the non-native snakes are flourishing and causing the population of many native species, from birds to mammals, to plummet.
A study published last year by scientists from the University of Florida, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission showed that pythons devoured 77 percent of the marsh rabbits tracked by the researchers. It was proof positive that the dramatic decline in marsh rabbits is due to the presence of invasive pythons. Researchers also suspect pythons are behind a decrease in deer populations.
Not only are the pythons responsible for decimating prey populations, but they're also outcompeting native predator species. The effect the snakes have on the ecological balance of Florida's wilderness can't really be understated, and it's a growing problem.
"Recent research has suggested that the predation pressure exerted by these pythons is unsustainable and causing big declines in native mammal populations. I see these declines in native animals as the biggest problem caused by the Burmese pythons," Dr. David Steen of Auburn University told MNN.
As part of the response to the problem, researchers launched the Python Challenge. The event both raises public awareness about the problem and also gives researchers a chance to learn about the species.
This year, a Python Challenge in Collier County collected more than 2,000 pounds of snakes in three months in just that county. One of the snakes was a male measuring 16 feet long and weighing 140 pounds, which set a new state record for size. The researchers participating in the challenge — including Ian Bartoszek from Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Paul Andreadis from Denison University, and staff from the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and the United States Geological Survey — used a strategy that is not only clever for catching more snakes but also revealed previously unknown behavior.
Fitting male pythons with radio trackers, the researchers essentially turned them into "snitch snakes" that they could follow during the breeding season.
"Pythons, and snakes in general, are very hard to find because they are highly camouflaged and don’t need to move around as much as warm-blooded animals," explains Steen. "So, by following one snake during the breeding season it is likely that you’ll be able to come across many others that you never would have found otherwise."
And the researchers certainly did. They could track the males to females, and they note that finding a pregnant female before she lays eggs can help make at least a dent in the year's population of pythons."It’s not like I’m waving a flag and declaring victory. But we’ve removed over 2,000 pounds of snakes from a fairly localized area,” Bartoszek told the Miami Herald. "Through active searching and radio telemetry, one little snake busted up multiple breeding aggregations."
Though the strategy may not signal the end of the python problem, it does signal progress.
Steen echoes this: "I do not think that we currently have the knowledge or the technology to eradicate pythons from Florida. But, this is an area of active research; what if someone were to develop a trap that uses chemical signaling? That could potentially be the trick to making a dent in their numbers."
To learn more about Florida's major python problem, check out this video from PBS Nature: