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Understanding Python Patterns Could Help Save the Everglades... Maybe

Apr 29, 2015 05:35 PM EDT
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burmese python
(Photo : Wiki CC0 - Ltshears)

Florida officials have long been waging war with invasive Burmese pythons in the Everglades National Park, where an ever-growing (but still hard to find) population of invasive pythons is so prevalent that it's taking a notable chunk out of local mammal populations. Unfortunately, most ecologists won't hesitate to say that the pythons are winning. Now however, the results of a new study may turn the tables, providing new information that can help focus efforts.

The study was recently published in the open-source journal Animal Biotelemetry, and details the largest and longest Burmese python tracking project even completed.

According to the study, researchers first found and captured 19 wild pythons who had made the Everglades their home. That alone is an impressive feat, as the pythons are infamously hard to find, despite the fact that experts estimate there are at least 30,000 pythons in the park, with a growing population that may be reaching upwards of about 10 times that.

Wildlife ecologist Frank Mazzotti told local media in the past that biologists only have a one percent detection rate for the elusive Burmese in the marshlands. Last year, for instance, they found and removed only 141 Burmese from the 1.5-million-acre Everglades National Park. (Scroll to read on...)

You can't blame them for trying to preserve one of the most beautiful and wild natural habitats left in the United States. Sunrise near the Anhinga Trail, Everglades National Park, Florida
(Photo : Flickr: Diana Robinson) You can't blame them for trying to preserve one of the most beautiful and wild natural habitats left in the United States. Sunrise near the Anhinga Trail, Everglades National Park, Florida

To help with the detection efforts, researchers led by the US Geological Survey (USGS) strapped radio and GPS tags on the 19 captured pythons, and released them back into the national park. These animals were then tracked for 5,119 days, revealing that python home ranges are roughly an area 3-miles-wide by 3-miles-long.

But how do they chose where to live? The tracking revealed that pythons prefer the Everglades' slough and coastal habitats, with tree islands being the principal feature of common-use areas. This held true even in areas where tree islands - landmarks held together by roots above marshier ground - was not commonplace.

"These high-use areas may be optimal locations for control efforts and further studies on the snakes' potential impacts on native wildlife," Kristen Hart, a USGS research ecologist and lead author of the study, explained in a statement. "Understanding habitat-use patterns of invasive species can aid resource managers in designing appropriately timed and scaled management strategies to help control their spread."

Still, while these revelations will focus efforts, it may not be enough. Experts have stressed in the past that because the Burmese python has no natural predators in the Everglades, even while it is presented with an abundance of food sources, discovery and elimination rates need to be 50 percent or greater to even make a small annual impact on populations.

Whether or not the data from this new study can actually improve discovery rates 50 times over remains to be seen.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

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