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iPhone tool serves as lizard wizard to seek invaders

Having trouble telling the difference between a Burmese python and a Ball python? There's an app for that.

The recently released IveGot1 app is a field identification guide to help identify some of the biggest, nastiest reptiles slithering around South Florida.

"I wouldn't have believed years ago, when I started doing this, that the public would be engaged like this," said Dan Thayer, director of Vegetation and Land Management and invasive species expert at the South Florida Water Management District. "This is an incredibly valuable tool."

The app was created by researchers at the University of Georgia's Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, working with a team of state and federal environmental agencies, including the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

For now the app provides information on 15 reptiles in South Florida but the hope is more species will be added and for the list to be regularly updated.

The app is free and available to iPhone 4.0 users. By the end of the year, the app will be compatible with the iPhone 3.0 system and there are plans to add apps for the Droid and Blackberry.

Besides photos, the app includes information about length, body characteristics, pattern, status (native/non-native/invasive), visual identification tips of the head and where the reptile has been spotted in South Florida.

For example, the African Nile Monitor - a carnivorous lizard that can grow to 6 feet - is well established in Cape Coral and sightings are becoming more frequent throughout Miami-Dade county. While some of the reptiles in the app are well established, like the monstrous Burmese python found throughout Everglades National Park, others, such as the green and yellow anaconda, have only been sighted a few times and could easily be misidentified without a field guide.

Non-native reptiles in Florida have become an epidemic. Most are released by pet owners who get bored with or cannot keep massive reptiles that once fit nicely in a tabletop terrarium. In the wild, the reptiles wreak havoc on the native animals they feast upon.

Researchers are quick to cite the case of the massive Nile perch, introduced into Lake Victoria in the 1950s, which caused the extinction or near extinction of several hundred species.

"An individual organism can cause a complete ecological collapse," said Larry Perez, science communications officer at the Everglades National Park. Today there are 195 non-native animals in Florida today and hundreds more non-native plants. "Here is South Florida, we haven't had that one catastrophic non-native species. It's more like death by 1,000 cuts."

The app, originally designed to help researchers in the field, will become even more valuable when the public can use it to report sightings from their phones. Because the phones are equipped with GPS and cameras, the exact location and a photo can be transmitted immediately to wildlife officials. That feature is not available now but its designers hope to make it available by next summer. The hope then is that people who work outdoors will use it when they see unwanted reptiles.

"It's about getting the lay person involved," Perez said. "People who deliver mail, work in lawn maintenance or travel a route and see something dead on the road that doesn't belong here."

The few successful eradication programs came about because of early intervention and quick response. Just gathering data that shows the spread of an invasive species "would be incredibly valuable," Thayer said.

"This could be an extremely helpful thing people could do," Thayer said. "Obviously we need more (human) eyes."