Radio telemetry: the new weapon against invasive pythons in Florida

Miami, Feb 22 (EFE).- Radio telemetry is the new weapon in the ongoing fight against the Burmese python, a non-native species that decades ago began invading the Everglades and poses a serious threat to Florida’s biodiversity.

The University of Florida has launched a program to implant very high-frequency radiotransmitters into captured pythons to help learn more about their habitat and localize other members of that species, with the aim of developing and implementing a strategy to eliminate them.

Melissa Miller, who is heading the project and is an expert in invasive species with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), told EFE that the aim is to reduce the impact of the species on the Everglades, the huge South Florida swamp that is home to more than 2,000 species of animals and plants.

She said that Burmese pithons have a significant impact on the Florida ecosystem and are threatening efforts to restore the Everglades as well as reducing the native mammal populations and transmitting parasites to native snakes.

According to recent studies, pythons have reduced the population of some mammals like field mice, weasels, raccoons and rabbits by up to 99 percent in some parts of the Everglades.

The UF program is investigating the pythons’ use of the habitat in the mud flats and islands of the Everglades and gathering data about the snakes’ mating habits so that experts can estimate the size of the population.

More than 17,000 pythons have already been eliminated in Florida but authorities don’t have a reliable estimate of the size of the total population, she said.

The program is being undertaken by scientists with UF/IFAS in collaboration with the US Geological Survey (USGS), the Fort Collins Science Center, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

Pythons captured by SFWMD and FWC personnel who are working on species eradication programs are implanted with two tracking devices that have a battery life of two to three years, Miller said.

The tracking devices emit high-frequency radio waves that can be detected by antenna.

At present, the program team is tracking eight adult pythons, including both males and females.

The females, which naturally secrete sexual hormones, attract many male pythons who compete for the opportunity to mate and thus, thanks to the locator devices, they can be “captured and eliminated,” Miller said.

In addition, the males with the tracking devices can help locate female pythons, who have the ability to produce many offspring, and this has been one reason why they have been so successful in populating the Everglades.

The fight against the predatory snakes is being carried out mainly by authorized hunters, who receive bounties for each snake they kill although they have also used assorted technologies on an experimental basis.

Miller emphasized that Burmese pythons in Florida eat a wide variety of species, reproduce rapidly and grow to very large sizes in an environment where they have few predators, all of these being factors that make the snakes a serious risk to the Everglades ecosystem.

It is not specifically known how the snakes arrived in the Everglades, but one of the theories is that the first ones in the area were originally pets who were released or escaped during Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Florida in 1992.

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, approximately 99,000 Burmese pythons were imported into the United States during the 1996-2006 period alone.

The presence of the species in the wild in South Florida has been noted since the beginning of the 1980s.

EFE –/bp

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