One of America's most delicate ecosystems is invaded with swarms of giant, non-native Burmese pythons. They're big. They screw up the ecosystem. And they're hard to find. But researchers may have finally learned how to round 'em up, thanks to radio and GPS.
The easily camouflaged, semi-aquatic Burmese python can easily hit 6m long and weigh 90kg, and they like to snack on endangered mammals dwelling in the Everglades — making them both hard-to-nab and a serious threat to the local ecosystem. They were first spotted in the region back in 1979.
In a study led by the US Geological Survey, published last month in the journal Animal Biotelemetry, researchers explained how the use of tracking technology over many years has narrowed down the size of the huge snakes' dwelling range in Florida's Everglades National Park. It also better explains the animals' movements and migration. This can help authorities neutralise this threat to the Everglades' biodiversity.
This study started back in 2006 with 19 wild-caught adult pythons, which were implanted with radio transmitters or GPS devices. Sixteen were radio-tracked with VHF tags for three years, and the other three snakes were monitored with GPS tags for one year. The results determined where the pythons like to hang in the park (on tree islands and near roads, in an average range of around 36 square kilometres), and that they tend to move to wherever there's surface water. Before this study, the predators' movements and habitat ranges within the park were pretty unknown.
This multi-year effort was the largest and longest-running python-tracking study ever (both here and its native habitat of Southeast Asia). The National Park Service says that since 2002, only about 2000 pythons have been removed from the park — "likely representing only a fraction of the total population."
In 2013, the state kicked off the inaugural Python Challenge. It was a snake-snatching contest that awarded regular folks thousands of dollars to comb through the Everglades, wrangling and exterminating Burmese pythons. (There's a second instalment set for 2016.) Hopefully this new study can better put the task in tech's hands.