To better find, capture and remove invasive Burmese pythons in Florida’s Everglades, a team of researchers is attaching location-tracking collars on animals such as raccoons and opossums that the predatory snakes feed on.
Burmese pythons have surged in south Florida in recent years, because many snake owners release them into the wild after they become too large to take care of.
Those pythons in particular can grow up to 20ft or more long, and the small mammal population bears the brunt of the large snake’s appetite.
In their original funding proposals, researchers at Southern Illinois University, the Crocodile Lake and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences did not count on capturing the pythons in Florida.
The research intended to study – with the aid of GPS collars – how supplemental food resources, such as feral cat feeding stations and unsecured garbage sources, could influence the movement and behavior of small and medium-sized mammals.
But in September, they detected unusual movement coming from the location collar on one of the possums and found it had been eaten by a 12ft Burmese python that weighed 62lbs (28kg). It was not until November that the team finally captured the snake, which was underground, using the signal from the collar.
“We always knew it was a possibility and that it had the potential to be flashy and scale up as a means of python removal from the environment,” said Michael Cove, a research curator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
The traditional method to capture the invasive species is to release male pythons equipped with radio tags into the environment during breeding season, which leads researchers to female snakes.
Cove said that the new alternative with opossums and raccoons has the potential to lead to captures without having to deploy pythons back into the environment.
A couple of months after their first capture, the team caught a 77lbs female python after a racoon had been eaten. The snake was later euthanized.
Still, researchers have met pitfalls along the way, pinpointing ways to enhance future plans to expand the capturing method.
Researchers in February detected a signal coming from a GPS collar attached to an opossum and, when the scientists finally tracked down the device, it had been defecated by the python.
“That was a reality check that we have a more finite time than we thought of retaining the collar,” Cove said.