Eco-warriors use brains, brawn to fight python menace
A team of researchers and wildlife biologists at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida capture an invasive Burmese python while on a tracking route across Collier County on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. Nicole Raucheisen/Naples Daily News
Jaimie Kittle rides in the back seat of a Ford F150 bumping along the top of a levee in East Naples. She asks the driver to stop. She thinks she might see something dark and shiny, catching the morning sun.
She hops out and peers into the tall grass.
"Python!" she shouts.
And the fight is on.
Kittle, 23, is part of a team of eco-warriors at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Using brains and brawn, the team targets pythons, a nonnative invasive species threatening to upend the Southwest Florida ecosystem.
The stakes are high. Pythons are apex predators that scientists say have the capacity to decimate native populations. The snakes, which can grow longer than 20 feet, eat raccoons, rabbits, wading birds, even deer. One study blamed pythons for a 90 percent decline in small mammals in Everglades National Park.
State and federal agencies recruit snake hunters — from machete-wielding thrill-seekers from the Miami suburbs to Irula tribesman from India — for headline-grabbing forays into the wilds of South Florida, awarding bounties for the biggest and best catches.
The Conservancy project, funded by private donors and the Naples Zoo, does it differently. Its team tracks radio-tagged snakes and then follows them to other snakes, hopefully egg-laden females.
The goal of the eco-warriors is to break the breeding cycle.
Since 2013, the team that includes wildlife biologists Ian Bartoszek, 40, and Ian Easterling, 25, has captured more than 250 snakes in a 25-square-mile area along the urban edge of East Naples, roughly southeast of U.S. 41 and Collier Boulevard. That's more than three tons of python and, more importantly, more than 3,000 python eggs.
Team leader Bartoszek, the driver of the snake team F150 truck, said unwanted pets released along a rural stretch of U.S. 41 East in the late 1990s could be the source of Collier County's python problem.
The first python hatchling, a sign of a breeding population, was found in 2008, run over on the highway about a mile from the entrance to Collier-Seminole State Park.
Crews at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve began pulling giant snakes out of the reserve in 2012, a year before the Conservancy tagged its first snakes.
That could mean the eco-warriors still have time to fight back
"Can we make a dent?" said Bartoszek, the Conservancy's science coordinator. "I don't know, but we're going to try."
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In the same split second of Kittle's python alert, Bartoszek and Easterling burst out of the pickup's front seat and bound down the side of the levee with her.
A 15-foot python with a fat body and a fist-sized head is waiting for them. Before the snake even knows what's happening, the team dives on top of it.
"You have three seconds," Bartoszek said. "Literally, one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, and it's gone."
The first thing to do when wrangling a giant python is to grip it just behind the head with both hands. The next thing is to hold on.
Every two weeks, Bartoszek and his team hire a Cessna 172 Skyhawk and a pilot to gather aerial intelligence on their tagged pythons from 1,000 feet up, listening for beeps from the tags implanted under the snakes' skins.
Antennas, one labeled FWD RT and one labeled FWD LT, are bolted onto each of the wings before takeoff. Bartoszek takes a tangle of wires, a radio receiver and a GPS unit into the cockpit.
He calls out the nickname of each snake as he hears its beep. There's Elvis, under the right wing. Argo is along the treeline in the distance. "Johnny, where's Johnny?" Bartoszek said. The plane banks and circles back to get closer to record each snake's location.
On the ground the next day, the snake team will use the coordinates to track the pythons from the pickup, a modified 4x4 with a winch and steel bumpers for heavy-duty field work. Easterling will hold an antenna out the truck's open window, listening for the telltale beeps again.
By keeping track of the snakes' movements, the team hopes to crack the code of python behavior and learn secrets that might help control their spread.
Flying southeast from the Naples Municipal Airport, it's easy to appreciate the challenge of pinpointing pythons, a notoriously cryptic creature. Forests of mangroves and marshes stretch to the horizon, interrupted by a growing number of cul-de-sacs under construction in new neighborhoods.
"That's the python zone," Bartoszek said.
A network of canals, imperceptible on the ground, is as good as an interstate highway for pythons to spread unchecked into every corner of Collier County. The Conservancy strategy is to hold a defensive line along the county's urban edge.
Unlike in the vast Everglades, where tracking a python might lead to isolated tree islands that are hard to get to, Southwest Florida pythons often are found within reach of the pickup and a sometimes treacherous hike through difficult terrain and back.
"We go where these animals go, and they know no boundaries," Bartoszek said.
The python hisses and writhes, trying to shake the surprise attack by the snake team.
"Hold on, hold on, she's doing the twist," Bartoszek says, trying to calm the adrenaline-fueled team. "Let's take our time."
Shedding skin makes it difficult to keep a good grip on the snake as it wraps itself around whatever it can find: Easterling's leg, Bartoszek's arm, a big clump of grass.
"You don't mess around with an animal like this. This is a loaded weapon," Bartoszek says.
This year, the team considered another captured snake named Jaeger an MVP, a Most Valuable Python, having led Conservancy trackers to three breeding females.
One epic extraction required a 1 1/2 mile slog through dense mangroves and sawgrass. Bartoszek blazed the trail, and Easterling followed behind carrying a 100-pound python in a pack on his back.
Jaeger is among 35 pythons, including 20 still in the field, that the Conservancy has tagged and turned into snitch snakes against their mates.
Researchers were tracking the project's first radio-tagged python, Elvis, when they found the snake they would later recruit for the tagging project and nicknamed the General. The two male snakes were in the same spot, and there's only one reason for that: a female snake they nicknamed Valentina.
Elvis would later play a crucial role in one of the team's crowning discoveries. Last year, they were tracking another tagged male, Kirkland, when they started hearing Elvis' beeps, too. They were in a gopher tortoise burrow — and they had company.
By the time researchers sorted through the twisted pile of snakes, they counted four more males and a single female, 200 pounds of pythons in one spot.
The team has high hopes their latest radio-tagged recruit, Fredo, will live up to his namesake, betraying the family as the doomed youngest Corleone brother did in "The Godfather."
They walked in on Fredo earlier this breeding season with a female the team had been tracking.
"That's a good sign that Fredo has the right stuff," Bartoszek said.
Finally, the python tires enough that the snake team can carry it to the top of the levee.
"Let her chill, just keep your guard up," Bartoszek says.
Out of breath, the team lowers the exhausted python into a plastic tub in the bed of the pickup and closes the lid.
Bartoszek locks the lid — just in case — before driving the python back to the Conservancy science lab.
One of Jaeger's conquests laid belly up on the necropsy table as Easterling pulled on a pair of blue surgical gloves. He picked up an Exacto knife and pushed the blade into the hefty female's leathery underside.
A day earlier it was still frozen and coiled up, propped up on its edge in the lab's stainless steel sink to thaw.
Easterling sliced the python from head to tip of tail. First, the skin peeled back, then a layer of glistening fat, to reveal internal organs and a load of 46 developing eggs. Easterling counted them off out loud, while Kittle logged the data.
Last, they squeezed a sample of the python's gut contents into a tiny collection bag, labeled with an identification code to be sent off to Christina Romagosa.
Romagosa and her team at the University of Florida will wash the sample using a sieve to collect tiny fragments of bones, teeth, hair and feathers. DNA analysis does not do a very good job of identifying undigested python food, so researchers put the samples under a microscope to identify them based on color and shape.
"It's super neat," said Romagosa, a research assistant professor at UF's department of wildlife ecology and conservation, who also handles gut samples from pythons captured in Everglades National Park. "It's like a Christmas present. You never know what you're going to get."
Turns out the pythons in Southwest Florida eat better than their east coast counterparts, which don't have much of a diet — other than cotton rats. Mammal populations still are large in the pythons' range in Collier, judging from the variety of samples found under the UF microscopes.
Rodents account for about 25 percent of the Collier pythons' diet. Rabbits account for another 30 percent. Opossums, raccoons, foxes, even the occasional deer and an armadillo have been found. No endangered species, and no alligators, Romagosa said.
"Matter of time, I imagine," she said.
The captured python lies nearly motionless on the science lab's cold floor. Its 129 pounds puts the team over the 2,000-pound mark for captured pythons this year.
Later, the snake will be anesthesized and then injected with chemicals that will humanely kill it. It will be cut open and added to the Conservancy's tally of arrested python reproduction.
And then, like most of the euthanized pythons, the carcass will be taken to Rookery Bay, carried off by vultures and returned to the ecosystem where it didn't belong in the first place.