South Florida has pythons by the ton, literally

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In South Florida, pythons come by the ton. Literally.

Researchers tracking Burmese pythons in Collier County as part of an ongoing study into their cryptic habits bagged more than 2,000 pounds of snakes over the last three months. Among the snakes was a monster stretching 16 feet and weighing 140 pounds that researchers say sets a new state record for the largest male caught.

“It’s just kind of jaw-dropping,” said Conservancy of Southwest Florida biologist Ian Bartoszek, who teamed up with Denison University biologist Paul Andreadis, the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and the United States Geological Survey for the project.

Over the last three years, the team has been outfitting male “snitch snakes” with radio trackers to look at python habits and, more importantly, catch other snakes. Pythons likely released by pet owners or escaped from breeding facilities have become so numerous in South Florida that scientists say they have now become one of the region’s top predators, altering the ecological landscape. In the wild, the well-camouflaged reptiles are nearly impossible to catch unless they’re out in the open. In Southeast Florida, they’re almost always found on levees or roads running through Everglades marshes.

But in Southwest Florida, researchers found a key hiding place — gopher tortoise and armadillo burrows. They also confirmed an earlier observation for pythons in Florida: They don’t mate in pairs.

Last year, the team tracked a male to a gopher tortoise burrow. When they pulled out the snake to update its tracker they found seven more snakes — six males and one female — squeezed into the hole for what’s called a “mating ball.”

“We were like OK,” Bartoszek said. “This year, we used that against them. If one was pinging, we knew he had friends.”

Following the snakes around breeding season — which tends to peak around Valentine’s Day in Southwest Florida — also seemed to reap the biggest bounty because the male snakes almost inevitably led to female snakes loaded with eggs. With the clutches ranging from 24 to 72 eggs, capturing one pregnant female can potentially put a bigger dent in the population.

“It’s not like I’m waving a flag and declaring victory. But we’ve removed over 2,000 pounds of snakes from a fairly localized area,” Bartoszek said. “Through active searching and radio telemetry, one little snake busted up multiple breeding aggregations.”

What that means for tracking snakes on the east coast, considered ground zero for the python invasion, is hard to know. The snakes adapt differently to different habitats. In the Everglades, biologists believe pythons may be congregating around tree islands where they can find high ground, a food supply in wading birds, and mating partners. The west coast of Florida tends to be more of a mosaic, with a patchwork of wetlands and uplands pocked with burrows that researchers now know make good snake pits.

Part of the study is also looking at what the snakes are consuming, Bartoszek said. Earlier research concluded that pythons feasting on small mammals have nearly wiped out the population of Everglades marsh rabbits. On the west coast, Bartoszek said biologists may find pythons responsible for a decrease in deer, which hunters have largely blamed on panthers. The state, which has staged Python Challenges to draw awareness, is also hoping a citizen reporting app, Ive Got 1, will produce more information.

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“The ecological impact of these animals is just over the top,” he said. “We’re starting to get a sense they eat bigger up the food chain.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich