Florida has been invaded.
The python invasion sparked worldwide interest after Florida officials invited hunters from across the United States to try their luck catching pythons for cash prizes in the 2013 Python Challenge, which ran from Jan. 12 to Feb. 10.
And though the hunters carried guns and machetes, it wasn’t actually about killing snakes.
It’s likely you’ve driven past them on Alligator Alley or Tamiami Trail, but it’s unlikely you’ve seen one of them — one of those Burmese pythons.
They can grow to 18 feet. They can hold their breath longer than an alligator. They can even eat an alligator.
Once a part of Florida’s pet trade, they now threaten South Florida’s natural ecology, and they’re slowly slithering up the state.
When the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, or the FWC, and outside consultants sat down to think of a way to address South Florida’s python problem, they knew hunters alone couldn’t solve things.
The hunters removed a total of 68 snakes, almost as many eggs as a snake lays in a single spring.
Still, the organizers decided that inviting hunters to enter into the Python Challenge was the best course of action. They needed hunters to help collect and use research data to tell the world about the python problem and their possible solutions to it.
What they got was high-profile media coverage as far away as England and a better understanding of these conservation areas: Francis A. Taylor, Big Cypress, Holey and Rotenberger.
Now that the challenge is over, researchers are analyzing the snakes and their habits.
Searching for data, solutions
Frank Mazzotti watched five hunters walk past one of his radio-tagged snakes. Each hunter intently searched the ground while the snake watched safely from its nook above in a tree.
Mazzotti, a researcher at UF’s Research and Education Center, headed the team that provided science support for the python challenge.
The wildlife ecology professor wanted to test how difficult it was for hunters to find their prey.
Burmese pythons aren’t poisonous and have launched only a few unprovoked attacks, said Jenny Eckles, a non-native species biologist for the FWC. But their sharp teeth can cause tissue damage to someone trying to catch them.
Brian Smith is a contractor for the U.S. Geological Services, a government agency that surveys the country’s landscape, natural hazards and natural resources. He said pythons can outlast alligators in holding their breath under water.
Alligators can stay submerged for an hour-and-a-half, pythons can go longer. Pythons are exothermic creatures that don’t need to burn a lot of oxygen to maintain body temperature.
Hunting pythons into extinction is seen as ineffective by researchers. But in-lab methods have proved fruitless as well. Smith said USGS researchers once thought introducing pythons’ to salt water as hatchlings — a python’s most vulnerable state — might hold the key to extermination.
To their surprise, the hatchlings survived.
Smith said the USGS research shows as the number of pythons in the Everglades rises, the native species’ populations decrease.
Marsh rabbits, for example, used to be one of the park’s most common species, Smith said. Park records show that as many as 40 rabbits could be seen in a single night, but there hasn’t been a rabbit sighting in nearly eight years.
Researchers need more data before the pythons’ effect on the environment is certain, Eckles said, because earlier studies didn’t take into account the Everglades’ water levels, which could have caused the animals to scatter across the marsh.
Lucky Cole, who has lived off Loop Road in Big Cypress National Preserve since 1965, said he’s seen the population of native species drop.
He and his wife Maureen have four cats, two chickens and two turkeys. All of the animals freely roam their property, but lately, they haven’t seen the deer, raccoons, possums, rabbits, squirrels, birds, hogs and bobcats that also used to frequent his backyard.
There’s no way of knowing how many pythons live in Florida and hunt those animal populations, Mazzotti said. Researchers may give a number in the tens of thousands when estimating the population, just as they do for alligators.
But they really mean is it’s impossible to know.
He said pythons are too hard to track for an accurate count, but if not contained, they will spread north.
Eckles said pythons have been in the Everglades since the 1960s. The first ones emerged as illegally released pets.
Although there are laws against releasing non-native animals in Florida, no one has ever been prosecuted, said Kenny Krysko, a UF biologist specializing in snakes.
“It’s a law that has no teeth,” he said.
“Warriors of the rainbow”
When Warren Geffre heard about the challenge, he signed up for the event with his 16-year-old son, Alex.
Geffre, a National Park Service administrative officer from Naples, has known about the shrinking numbers of native Everglades animals, and said he noticed the lack of birds.
“Something seems strange,” he said, “since this is the time that birds migrate.”
Geffre heeded the call of his Blackfoot ancestry, which he said emphasizes working to protect the Earth.
“In our culture, there’s a saying,” said Geffre, one of nearly 1,600 who signed up to hunt in the challenge. “When the Earth is sick, the animals will disappear, and when that happens, the warriors of the rainbow will come to save them.”
People of all backgrounds will come together, the saying goes, and do their part when nature is threatened.
For the challenge, each participant paid a $25 registration fee. The money paid for challenge prizes, certificates and an award ceremony held at the challenge’s end. It also went to the Wildlife Foundation of Florida, a nonprofit that works with the FWC to fund projects, Eckles said.
Bob Davis, a federal veterans’ claims appeals judge who splits his time between St. Petersburg and Washington, D.C., hunted in the event’s last five days. Because of the challenge, he registered for a regular hunting license and will return if there is a challenge next year.
Richard Buzzella, who carried Nesquik in his left back pocket and a saber on his right hip, registered for the challenge with his son, Nick. He said he plans to apply for a hunting license this year.
Born and raised in Miami, Buzzella said he used to spend time in the Everglades and credits the challenge with getting him back out there.
“It’s nice out here,” he said. “I’d forgotten what it’s like.”
Neither Davis nor the Buzzellas caught a python.
“A Greater Understanding”
Every day between Jan. 12 and Feb. 10, researchers sat at check-in stations where they collected and measured the pythons before storing them in foam coolers.
The harvested snakes went to the University of Florida, where researchers took python samples for analysis, Mazzotti said. These included the reproductive tracts, guts, liver, fat and muscle tissue.
As of April 24, he said he was unable to make statements about what was found, but said he is close to doing so. He said he’s very happy with the information they received.
Researchers even flew in from places like the San Diego Zoo to take sperm samples for future preservation projects.
Snake carcasses and skins were returned to hunters with no requirement to disclose what the parts would be used for, Mazzotti said.
Bill Booth, who caught five snakes with his team and won the category for nonprofessional hunters, preserved his snakeskins and kept them as trophies of his participation in the challenge.
During the challenge, he worked with the National Geographic Channel on producing a show about hunting the Burmese python. It’s tentatively set to air in June, he said.
In the meantime, hunters with python permits can hunt pythons during the FWC’s regular hunting seasons, which Eckles said stretch from August to April for those with a hunting license and wildlife management area permit. The FWC might revamp the permitting process from the lessons learned during the challenge.
The commission may also make the tracking a permanent fixture, she said. An annual hunt could be in the works, but nothing’s set in stone.
Still, Carli Segelson, FWC spokeswoman in West Palm Beach, saw early success from the challenge.
“We want people to know that releasing animals into the wild has a negative impact on the population,” she said. “There’s becoming a greater understanding of that.”