Track­ers are putting a squeeze on pythons

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS STATE-BY-STATE - Greg Stan­ley

The roam­ing sentinel, a male python named Argo, with a sur­gi­cally im­planted track­ing de­vice, needed just three days to lead re­searchers to the largest trove of pythons found yet in Col­lier County.

It was a land­mark dis­cov­ery of the re­cently com­pleted breed­ing sea­son. Argo had just found a 100pound fe­male python get­ting ready to lay eggs in a cul­vert. The fe­male was cap­tured.

Three days later and a half-mile away, a team with the Con­ser­vancy of South­west Florida found the in­va­sive snake.

“We lo­cate him and then there is an­other male, and an­other male and an­other,” Con­ser­vancy wildlife bi­ol­o­gist Ian Bar­toszek said. “So it’s like, where’s the fe­male?”

The re­searchers beat through the brush and found an egg-lay­ing 115-pound fe­male.

The eight snakes, called a breed­ing ag­gre­ga­tion, were the most found in one place in South­west Florida and the west­ern Ever­glades, where the pythons have been steadily spread­ing for years.

It’s hard to say what an ag­gre­gate of that size means for the den­sity and the num­ber of pythons that now have a foothold in the swamps and thick­ets of eastern Col­lier County, Bar­toszek said.

Just a few miles away, an­other male python the Con­ser­vancy tracks went the en­tire breed­ing sea­son with­out find­ing a sin­gle fe­male, he said.

Part of what makes pythons so hard to track is they leave vir­tu­ally no trace of their prey. The only way to know what they’re eat­ing is to catch and dis­sect them, and to watch what species are dis­ap­pear­ing from the wild.

From their stom­achs, bi­ol­o­gists have pulled bob­cat claws, deer hooves, birds, rab­bits, opos­sums and rac­coons.

The Con­ser­vancy es­ti­mates that 61% of the diet of pythons found in Col­lier County are small mam­mals such as rab­bits, opos­sums and rac­coons.

An ad­di­tional 29% are ro­dents and birds.

The Con­ser­vancy uses ra­dio trans­mit­ters to hunt pythons. The track­ers have been sur­gi­cally im­planted in about 20 male snakes called sen­tinels that are then fol­lowed to breed­ing fe­males.

The Con­ser­vancy re­moved about 2,000 pounds of pythons this year.

“It’s about re­moval, but it’s also about re­search,” Bar­toszek said. “To re­ally have an ef­fec­tive con­trol we have to learn what we can learn about them and their habits to make in­formed de­ci­sions.”

Ian Easter­ling con­ducts a python au­topsy. OLIVIA VANNI/NAPLES DAILY NEWS

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