That’s just one observation that emerged from an exhaustive study Hart led that tracked the giant snakes through Everglades National Park using radio transmitters. Hart said transmitters are the most reliable way to track a big, fat animal that’s notoriously hard to find in the wild.
Long story short, the purpose of the study is to find better ways to kill the snakes. “The ultimate goal is to try to remove them,” Hart said.
That’s easier said than done.
Burmese pythons are so well camouflaged that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has given up on eradicating them. In 2013, a month-long hunt called the Python Challenge came up short in an effort to remove them with the help of hunters across the nation. Hunters could not spot the animals in tall grass even when they were a few feet away.
Scientists believe invasive pythons that have no natural predators are wiping out mammals in the Everglades, many of them threatened and endangered. Although the snakes are a deadly threat to everything from wood storks to alligators, there have been no recorded attacks by Burmese pythons on humans in Everglades National Park — a fact that officials stress to visitors, fearing they might be frightened away by news reports.
Hart and her team of six researchers went all spy agency on the pythons. They caught 16 of the snakes between 2006 and 2009, and another three in 2010 and 2011. They knocked them all out with tranquilizers and stuffed the first group with radio transmitters and the second with global positioning systems.
As a result of the study, researchers know more about the movement and whereabouts of pythons in Everglades National Park than they have since the snakes were first detected in 1979. The researchers were mildly surprised to find that the snakes behaved differently in the park than Burmese pythons act in their native habitat in Southeast Asia.
For one thing, the Everglades snakes traveled longer distances on average, up to 200 yards in a day, and up to 900 yards from the spot where they were released. For another, some of them congregated in common ranges, weird for a snake that’s thought to be solitary.
Much of their congregating appeared to coincide with the spring mating season. And their movements were often to coastal areas where small animals amble up for a drink.
Burmese pythons like to wallow in muck. One-third of them were tracked to sloughs, wet muddy ground. Another two-thirds were found in marshy wetlands in coasts, lowland forest, tree islands and wet prairie.
When the ground became dry, the pythons got going. They “displayed significant movements when surface water was absent, indicating dispersal may occur under locally ‘dry’ conditions,” said the study, published last week in the journal Animal Biotelemetry.
Other authors included Frank J. Mazzotti, a professor of wildlife ecology and conservation for the University of Florida; Brian J. Smith, a research at Cherokee Nations Technology Solutions; Ray W. Snow of Everglades National Park; and Michael Dorcas, a researcher at Davidson College’s biology department.
The authors theorized that pythons in the park “need to move greater distances from one relatively wet habitat patch to another” to catch prey.
The USGS’ solution is to keep spying on pythons with fancy equipment before trying a lethal push. Hart said her next study will follow snakes through winter to find ways to sneak up on them when they’re breeding in spring. She said she’s hoping to find and tag the perfect “Judas snake,” a serpent that betrays the location of others, leading scientists and hunters in for the kill.
“Highly adaptable, these ambush predators can reach lengths greater than 19 feet and produce large clutches of eggs that can range from eight to 107 eggs,” the USGS said. Florida is home to a number of exotic and threatened species, and pythons are eating them.
Their reproduction could be getting out of hand, and there’s a fear that warm weather snakes might find a way to adapt and migrateinto central Florida cities such as Tampa and Orlando and beyond.
When researchers struck out to count animals along a main road that runs to the southernmost tip of the park in 2012, more than 99 percent of raccoons were gone, along with nearly the same percentage of opossums and about 88 percent of bobcats. Marsh and cottontail rabbits, as well as foxes, could not be found.