Burmese pythons in Florida: UF starts telemetry program, searches for large breeders

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

The University of Florida is targeting Burmese pythons in the historic Everglades by using telemetry to find and remove large, breeding females.

"We’re hoping to get a better understanding of how pythons are using this habitat," said Melissa Miller, a research assistant scientist at the University of Florida's Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center and agriculture extension, or IFAS. "When are they moving to the tree island and when are they moving to the marsh? So we’re excited to have one in the sawgrass marsh and tree islands."

The project is focused on the Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area and large expanses of water called Water Conservation Areas by the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state and federal agencies charge with moving water here.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Officer Matthew Rubenstein with a breeding female Burmese python and some of the 23 eggs and 18 hatchlings he and South Florida Water Management District python removal contractor Alex McDuffie found July 11, 2022.

Burmese pythons not native to Florida

Burmese pythons, as the name suggests, are not native to Florida. They have been established, however, for the past two decades and are likely a permanent feature of the local ecology.

Miller and her crew and using snakes that have been captured by hunters and turned in to the state. They're using mostly females, although some males will be tracked as well with radio telemetry.

"Each python has a tracking device and batteries that lasts two to three years," Miller explained. "Multiple male pythons will gather around our female snakes because they’re looking for an opportunity to mate. And tracking the males may allow us to get to the large females."

These snakes were introduced to South Florida by pet owners who no longer wanted them, and another theory is that some snakes escaped from pet stories during deadly Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

However they got here, pythons are likely to stay as they have adapted well to South Florida's temperate and semi-tropical climate.

One of the coolest stories I covered this year was the removal of a record-breaking python from the Everglades - an 18-foot female carrying 120 eggs and adult white-tailed deer hooves.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has been working on a similar program since 2013, and they have captured about 30,000 pounds of pythons in this region.

"This is the wildlife impact issue of our time for Southern Florida," said Ian Bartoszek, a wildlife biologist and python specialist with the Conservancy.

"Don't underestimate the Burmese python," Bartoszek said. "As a project lead on a telemetry study for 10 years, they continue to impress us each year."

Other efforts include the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's annual python hunt, which draws people from across the country.

Researchers in Key Largo last year started placing GPS collars on small mammals like opossums, and they've tracked and found snakes that consumed some of the critters.

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Groups aim to control python population in Florida

The goal now for environmental groups, the university and hunters is to control them and keep the population centered south of Lake Okeechobee.

"The invasion front is a fluid thing that changes over time," Miller said. "More data is needed to see if they’re established in those more northern counties."

How many Burmese pythons live in Florida?

No one knows exactly how many Burmese pythons live in the wilds of South Florida, and their distribution across the southern part of the Sunshine State isn't exactly clear.

Pythons are bad for south Florida because they eat native wildlife like deer, raccoons, and wading birds, and they compete with native predators for food and space.

"More than 17,000 snakes have been removed from Florida," Miller said. "Currently we’re looking at long-term management of the species and trying to contain it and stop it from spreading to other areas."

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