Researchers battling Florida’s Burmese python invasion have recruited an unlikely ally in the fight to control these giant snakes — the pythons themselves.
The Scientists and the Snakes: How a Unique Research Team is Tackling Florida’s Invasive Python Problem
by Kate Messner
Most people who come to St. Francis Animal Clinic in Naples, Florida walk through the door with pet dogs or cats. But on one April afternoon, researchers Ian Easterling and Monica Hendricks arrive toting two heavy plastic bins. Inside are two male Burmese pythons named Jaeger and Luther. These giant snakes aren’t pets. They’ve been enlisted to work for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida — part of a unique project to track the Burmese pythons that have been spreading through the southern part of the state in recent decades. Today, these two snakes will be implanted with radio transmitters so researchers can track their movements. The goal is twofold — research to learn more about the habits, strengths, and weaknesses of these giant snakes, and removal, to keep the population from spreading even more and threatening native Florida wildlife.
Florida’s Burmese python problem likely began with pets that were released into the wild, starting in the 1970s or 80s. Some snakes may also have escaped from a breeding facility. Before scientists realized what was happening, the invasive pythons had established a breeding population. Now, researchers estimate there are tens of thousands of Burmese pythons living in South Florida — maybe even hundreds of thousands. These snakes are native to Southeast Asia, but they’re perfectly suited for life in the Florida wilderness. They excel at hunting small mammals. They don’t have natural predators here. And they’re experts when it comes to hiding. Most often, these giant snakes are curled up in tight balls, hunkered down in gopher tortoise or armadillo burrows. In the dense brush of Southwest Florida, it’s easy to walk right over a fifteen-foot Burmese python and never even know it.
That’s why Jaeger and Luther are such valued members of the Conservancy research team. They were captured, implanted with radio transmitters, and released back into the wild. During the breeding season for Florida’s Burmese pythons — from December to April — male snakes are laser focused on finding females. As female pythons slither through the grass, they secrete pheromones, special chemicals that attract males for mating. The Conservancy’s tagged male pythons track females by following their scent, and that means researchers can track them, too.
“The best female python detector during the mating season of Southwest Florida is a male python,” says Ian Bartoszek, who heads up this radio telemetry program with the Conservancy. He’s been working with the project since it launched in 2013 and says locating female snakes is essential. A single female can lay well over fifty eggs in a season. That’s fifty brand new pythons that have a chance of growing into adults. Researchers understand that if they hope to have any impact on the python population, even on a small, local scale, they need to find more females and disrupt that cycle of reproduction.
This trip to the vet for Jaeger and Luther is part of that effort. The snakes already have transmitters implanted in their bodies, but the signals have grown weak, so they’re getting new ones. Carefully, Easterling and Hendricks open the first bin. They hold Jaeger steady while Dr. Jeffrey Noble administers anesthesia via a tube in the snake’s mouth. Once the python is sedated, they spread him out on the table for surgery.
“I’ll watch his head,” Easterling says, keeping a close eye to make sure the patient doesn’t wake up too soon. Pythons aren’t venomous, but they can still deliver a nasty bite.
Dr. Noble makes an incision, finds and removes the old transmitter, and replaces it with a new one. All of this is done with just a two-inch incision and takes about twenty minutes. When it’s finished, Dr. Noble stitches up Jaeger’s incision and removes the anesthesia tube. He repeats the process with Luther. Now, both snakes are ready to go back to work.
The next morning, researchers load the pythons into a pickup truck and head out for a day in the field. We drive down a bumpy dirt road and park near a wooded area. Researchers tip over Luther’s bin, and the big snake spills onto the grass, a pile of tangled python coils. Luther doesn’t move at first except to taste the air, as if he’s trying to figure out where he is. But in a few minutes, he uncoils himself, slithers under a fallen branch, and disappears into the brush. Hendricks stands at the edge of the clearing holding the receiver and pointing the antenna toward the woods.
Luther’s signal is strong now. The new transmitter will make him easier for researchers to track, and they’re hoping he’ll lead them to more female pythons. In 2017, Luther led the Conservancy team to a burrow with two other males and a female. They tagged one of those males and named him Malcolm, and he’s part of the project now, too. The other male and the female were euthanized in the same way that veterinarians end the life of a pet dog or cat that’s very old or sick.
That’s the tough part of the job for these researchers. They chose this work because they love animals. They refer to the pythons by name, telling stories about how Jaeger ended up with Stella this year, wondering if young Orion will find a mate next season.
“You get attached,” Bartoszek says. He’s quick to point out that although the pythons are wreaking havoc with the ecosystem, this problem was created by people – not by the snakes themselves. “They’re just doing what they snakes do best.”
Next, researchers drive to another location, where they set Jaeger free in the same area where he was captured. He vanishes into the high grass, and the team heads back to the truck. Now it’s time to visit some of the other male pythons they’ve been tracking.
While Easterling and Hendricks were at the vet yesterday, Bartoszek was in the sky, making a radio telemetry flight to check on the tagged pythons’ locations. Every two weeks, he goes out in a Cessna with antennas on the wings. The plane flies a thousand feet over the marshes and fields — low enough so researchers can hear the signals from their snakes’ transmitters. Bartoszek makes notes on their locations to make it easier for the team to find and check on them in the field.
Argo is the first snake on our list today. “He was our VIP this year,” Bartoszek says. “Very Important Python.” In February of 2018, researchers tracked Argo to a culvert pipe. They used a burrow scope — a long rubber tube with a fiber optic camera on the end — and saw that Argo wasn’t alone. They enlisted the help of a nearby worker with an excavator, who lifted the pipe up with a chain and gave it a good shake. Argo came tumbling out, along with a one-hundred pound female python. Researchers removed the female and set Argo free. Three days later, they found him again — this time with seven other pythons, including a new female and six more males.
Breeding season is over now, so researchers expect the male snakes we find today will be on their own. The beeping radio receiver leads us down a dirt road, through high grass and overgrown brush as we track Argo to the edge of a nursery where local landscapers and residents buy plants.
The area surrounding the nursery is thick with tangled ivy vines. The beeping gets louder as we push deeper into the brush. “He’s right here,” Bartoszek says, looking down at the carpet of plants under our feet. Argo seems to be hiding in a tunnel network under the root mass of all this vegetation. Ian hacks away at the ivy with a machete for a few minutes. He likes to lay eyes on a snake to confirm the sighting, but Argo has other plans today. Researchers don’t want to disturb him any further, so they make a note that Argo was “found” via telemetry but not seen this time. They record the date and habitat type in a field journal we move on.
Our next stop is a conservation area called Rookery Bay, a hot spot for the Conservancy’s tracked pythons, including a male named Kirkland. This time, the receiver leads us into an area full of scrub oak and palmettos. Soon, the beeping grows louder. Once again, we find ourselves standing right on top of a python that we can’t see. Eventually, researchers spot an armadillo burrow, and Easterling pulls the scope from his backpack. He feeds the long rubber pipe with the camera into the hole, and Kirkland appears on the viewing screen, about a meter inside the burrow.
We track the next python to a gopher tortoise burrow in another part of Rookery Bay. This snake is named Grendel, after the monster in the classic poem Beowulf.
“Because he tried to take Dr. Paul’s arm off when he captured him,” Bartoszek recalls. He and Easterling check on Grendel with the scope while Hendricks ties a ribbon on a nearby tree to mark the spot. That will make Grendel easier to find if he’s in the same place the next time researchers come out to check on him.
We visit Zeppelin next — he’s in a tortoise burrow, too — and then Caesar, who’s holed up in an armadillo burrow. Our last snake of the afternoon is Malcolm, who’s curled up under a nest of tree roots, deep in the woods.
As we make our way back to the truck, Bartoszek shares Malcolm’s story. In 2017, this python led researchers to a fourteen-foot female. But the next year, he had no luck finding a mate. Could that mean that the project is having an impact on the local python population? Bartoszek says it’s too early to draw that conclusion, but since the project began, his team has removed more than ten thousand pounds of python from an area of roughly fifty square miles in Southwest Florida. “So maybe we’re gaining some ground in some areas,” he says, “but we still have a lot of work to do.”
Back in the lab at the end of the day, researchers use Google Earth to record the data they gathered in the field. On a wall near the screen is a reminder of why their work is so important — a poster showing what a single python might consume as it grows to adulthood.
A python’s diet includes everything from rabbits to bobcats and deer, all animals that are also prey for native predators, including the endangered Florida panther. “To make a snake that’s seventeen feet long, that’s a lot of biomass,” Bartoszek says. “That’s a lot of native wildlife the snake was eating over the years.”
Bartoszek and his team know their project won’t eliminate Florida’s invasive pythons. Their hope is to keep the local population under control, especially at the borders of conservation areas and urban neighborhoods. But more than that, they want to keep working and keep learning.
“We’ve had a ringside seat, watching a new creature program itself into this environment,” Bartoszek says. The goal is to use all of that new knowledge about pythons to develop better ways to control their population. The Conservancy team is working with other researchers to come up with new technologies and ideas — everything from sniffer dogs to drones to “smart traps” that use chemical attractants. But until those more promising technologies emerge, they’re counting on snakes like Luther, Jaeger, and Argo to keep up the good work.
If you’d like to come along on some more python tracking adventures and learn more about this team of scientists and their work, look for the book TRACKING PYTHONS: THE QUEST TO CATCH AN INVASIVE PREDATOR AND SAVE AN ECOSYSTEM at your favorite bookstore or library.