Oh, you know all about the danger invasive pythons pose in the Everglades and the annual hunt by folks who come from afar for bragging rights or to collect a bounty.
But I’ll bet you don’t know all about the science behind the effort to reduce the python population before they destroy the populations of deer, bobcats, rabbits, and other animals being wiped out, thanks to the pythons that have no predator.
Right now, for example, a cooperative effort by Canadian scientists and Florida wildlife experts is underway with federal help at the National Wildlife Research Center in Gainesville, Florida, financed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They are experimenting with ways to trick male pythons into slithering into a trap. How? They start with skin that pythons have shed. Then, using a complex process involving various chemicals, they extract pheromones from the skin. They build a maze in the laboratory and spread female pheromones through the maze to see if males will follow the trail into a trap.
You could say this is a centuries-old idea. Question: How can you trap men? Answer: Get them to chase women. Ian Bartoszek, a biologist with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, puts it this way: “A male python is the best female detector on the plant.” And females are more important to catch.
If the “trick-them-with-pheromones” technique can be perfected, we could kill many males, eliminating some that would fertilize female eggs.
That would be helpful, but finding and removing females would be more effective because they have so many eggs — as many 70, 75, or 80. Besides using pheromones, another method using the males to lead hunters to females is underway.
Bartoszek and his colleagues are at work searching for pythons and attaching radio-tracking devices to the males, knowing they will lead them to the potential mamas. Finding them in the first place, though, is no walk in the woods. Well, it actually is a walk in the Everglades — sometimes a long walk through knee-deep muck that sucks your foot down with every step. By all accounts, pythons are very difficult to see because they so easily blend into the Everglades landscape. An ecologist from the University of Arkansas, John Wilson, is quoted in Popular Science magazine that you can stand on a python and not even know. They can move fast, so even when you snag one it might get away. Two or three people may be needed to hold an 11-footer.
With the radio-tracking strategy, the snakes are let loose when they’re tagged and may eventually seek out the ladies. A helicopter tracks the electronic signals and leads hunters on the ground to the capture. In the meantime, the python might kill some mammals, but catching an egg-filled female is worth the price. The strategy has reaped some benefits. In 2015, for instance, Bartoszek reported trapping four males in a hole with a 14-foot female, capturing 240 pounds of python and a lot of eggs. In a public radio interview Bartoszek said he and his fellow scientists have eliminated more than 2,000 pythons from the Everglades National Park since 2002. Yet, the python population is still growing, and Ian Bartoszek said the range is expanding northward.
The ecological battle is on, but it’s not yet being won. Scientists will be the most effective warriors we have in the battle.