Using Tech to Corral Florida’s Scary Invasive Species

Burmese python
Burmese Python

This large Burmese python, weighing 162 pounds and more than 15 feet long at the time of its capture in 2009, was caught alive in Everglades National Park and was found to have eaten an American alligator that measured about 6 feet in length. University of Florida researchers in the photo: Michael Rochford is holding the python’s head, and Alex Wolf and Therese Walters are holding the python’s body.(Photo: University of Florida)

Even for a native Floridian, the 2015 Everglades Invasive Species Summit was a terrifying experience.

Researchers from various government agencies and universities presented their findings last week on plants and animals that didn’t originate in the Everglades but have established themselves there. Those invasive species pose a threat not just to the delicate ecology of the 1.5 million acres of Everglades National Park, but increasingly pose a threat to humans as their populations flourish and spread.

Summarizing those menaces means picture after picture of massive Burmese pythons that have consumed deer, possums, dogs and bobcats. The researchers discuss Giant African Snails that can cause brain damage and liver failure in humans. They debate the best way to capture venomous lionfish from the Indian and Pacific Oceans that are now swarming local waterways.

The group casually talks about the reproductive rates of Nile monitor lizards and the impressive ability of Argentine tegu lizards to escape their traps. One researcher, visibly pregnant, opened her presentation saying: “In case you’re wondering, I did consume a deer recently.”

After settling in and acclimating myself to the nonchalant way they described things like “snake highways,” I realized there was hope. That’s coming in the form of new technologies that are making it a little easier to find and capture the creatures.

Much of the new research is focusing on the biggest, baddest invasive species of them all: the Burmese python. The breed, which can approach 20 feet in length, was first spotted in the Everglades in the early 2000s. Researchers assume it was released by or escaped from an exotic pet owner, a thriving enterprise in South Florida. The pythons quickly found a home in the marshy Everglades, began breeding and now number in the tens of thousands.

Until recently, biologists and trappers used rudimentary methods to capture them — traps placed near recent python sightings, volunteers monitoring the roads that wind through the Everglades. The state has even hosted an annual contest to encourage people to wade into the Everglades and capture as many as they can.

But now, Gintas Zavadzkas has begun surgically implanting the pythons with GPS tracking devices to better understand their traveling habits. Zavadzkas, the ecological research coordinator for the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians that care for more than 200,000 acres of the Everglades, is also identifying different pheromones that attract pythons to improve the success of traps.

 Michelle McEachern of the U.S. Geological Survey has been trying to use DNA sampling to identify exactly what the pythons are eating to better understand their eating habits.

The researchers have also started using a Web-based mapping technology developed at the University of Georgia to crowdsource the difficult task of finding where those invasive species are living. They held the first “Catch, Click and Submit Contest” in February that allowed anglers to upload data about the invasive fish they snared in South Florida’s waterways. And now anybody can download a smartphone app called “IveGot1” to document whatever foreign creature they find.

In some cases, the efforts are too little too late. Species like the Burmese python and speckled caiman have continued to spread. Lionfish have reproduced so quickly that they have been spotted throughout the Gulf of Mexico and as far up as North Carolina. But Gambian pouched rats haven’t been spotted in the Everglades since 2013. Fewer African rock pythons are being observed and chameleon removals have dropped from 250 in 2011 to seven last year.

 And it’s those successes that could have the most far-reaching effects for the rest of the country.

Frank Mazzotti, part of a team at the University of Florida called the “Croc Docs,” said management officials can eliminate invasive species if they’re detected and caught early on. If those efforts fail, as they did with the Burmese pythons and lionfish, “eradication is no longer possible.”

But the new technologies presented at the summit give hope to wildlife managers around the country. With so many species to study in the Everglades, the region has become a testing ground for technological advances that can help control invasive populations around the country.

“Maybe tegus aren’t popping up in their backyard, but if you look around the country, invasive species are causing problems everywhere,” Mazzotti said. “If it’s not carp in the Great Lakes, it’s some other species somewhere else. And what we learn to help solve invasive species here may help somebody in Iowa solve an invasive species in their backyard.”

For the sake of all you Northerners who’ve never stumbled upon a cranky green iguana, let’s hope it works.

Gomez is a MIami-based correspondent for USA TODAY

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