GPS collars on small mammals leading researchers to Burmese pythons

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro Writer: Matthew Seaver
Published: Updated:

Florida’s Burmese python population has boomed since they were first spotted in the Everglades in the 1990s, but researchers have recently found unlikely, furry allies in tracking and combatting the reptiles.

There is not yet an effective way to remove invasive pythons efficiently or in large numbers. We have the annual Florida Python Challenge, a great tool, but last year’s competition only caught 231 pythons, a small fraction of the estimated 100,000 in the state.

Python removal agent Dilan Ekmark says the scariest thing about them is what they’re doing to our environment.

“We spend countless days in the Everglades, in the swamps… we don’t see nearly the amount of small mammals or birds that you might have seen several years ago, and you can absolutely tell there’s a large impact,” Ekmark said.

The Burmese pythons are hard to catch and hard to find, but Ekmark found a clutch of python eggs and the mother python on a recent hunt. The snakes will eat just about anything in their path; they’ve been known to eat alligators, deer, and smaller creatures like possums and raccoons, which led to a breakthrough moment for researchers.

They wanted to study the behavior of small mammals in Key Largo, so they put GPS collars on them. Then, when one collar didn’t move for four hours, researchers went to retrieve it.

“It makes a different sounding signal when it’s on mortality,” said Kelly Crandall, lead scientist and Southern Illinois University graduate student. “The snake was on the surface. And that’s when we were like, ‘OK, we have a python.'”

The snake ate a collared possum, which led researchers to a 12-foot, 62-pound python.
And then it happened again, leading them to a 77-pounder with eggs.

“Not only are you helping generations of future prey animals by removing that predator, you’re also preventing generations of pythons [from] being introduced into the environment,” Crandall said.

What about the small animals? Crandall says that’s just the circle of life. They don’t relocate the animals; data shows the collars don’t change behavior, and pythons are predatory creatures. This method is being used in Key Largo where pythons were first seen in 2007.

It works for now while there are still small animals present, but they aren’t sure how long the method will remain effective—Crandall’s data shows those small animal populations are still declining.

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