The Python Invasion: Scientists on the front lines of the python problem

06/01/2014 12:00 AM

06/01/2014 9:10 PM

As pythons have spread across the Everglades during the last decade, scientists have struggled to catch up.

Underfunded and facing an invasive species that has the potential to destroy the Everglades, the minds tasked with addressing the problem are nevertheless passionate about their work.

United States Geological Survey Scientist Kristen Hart -- who is featured in the seventh video installment of The Python Invasion -- has traversed alligator infested swamps, captured large pythons by hand, and has somehow scraped together funding to study Burmese pythons and their effects on the Everglades for more than four years.

"I've never been involved in something so complex," Hart said. "There's no easy answer to this. It takes creative tools, a bunch of different expertise, and there's no silver bullet."

Most recently, Hart was part of a study that discovered pythons have advanced navigational abilities, like homing pigeons.

The scientists captured 12 Burmese pythons in the Everglades, implanted radio transmitters in them, then released them miles away from where they were caught. Most of them found their way back to where they were captured. Scientists think that those "map and compass" abilities contribute to their success invading the Everglades.

"Future research is warranted into the dynamics of snake invasions that place and emphasis on understanding sensory and navigational capacity to best inform conservation efforts," the scientists wrote in their study.

But Hart says the study of pythons is poorly funded and so scientists end up doing collaborative studies with other universities and professors, and "nickel and diming" their way to new discoveries.

To compare, the U.S. Government allocated more than $10 million a year from 2006 to 2010 to study and combat a brown tree snake invasion in the Pacific island of Guam, according to allocation reports published by the U.S. House of Representatives. Since 2006, the U.S. government has spent only about $1 million a year on studying and combating Burmese pythons in the Everglades, which is a designated World Heritage site that is endangered, according to Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In this week’s video snippet -- outtakes of The Python Invasion documentary that will broadcast on WPBT2 later in the year -- Hart walked through the humble USGS facility on the grounds of the University of Florida's satellite campus in Davie. It's a small metal shack with two plug-in freezers to preserve python body parts that need to be analyzed.

"I am trying to understand these animals and their biology so we can design appropriately scaled control strategies," she said. "We have a lot of ideas of what should be done throughout the landscape."

But, she added, "We try to convey how limited our funding is."

Oscar Corral is the founder and president of Explica Media, and the director and producer of The Python Invasion. Follow him on Twitter @ojcorral.

Join the Discussion

Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service