MIAMI — Aside from being scarily large and voracious, Burmese pythons also are really good at finding their way home, according to new research conducted in Florida’s Everglades.
The discovery about pythons’ unusual navigational abilities doesn’t much help wildlife agencies desperately trying to curb the invasive snake’s population in the fragile wetlands. It might be something reptile owners should think about, though, if they’ve considered illegally dumping an unwanted pet python in the wild.
“This is like the difference between homing pigeons and other birds,” said the University of Florida’s Frank Mazzotti, one of the researchers for the study being published Wednesday in Biology Letters, a journal of Britain’s Royal Society.
Mazzotti and other researchers have been studying what pythons eat and trying to find a way to keep their population from growing. In 2006 and 2007, they captured 12 adult pythons in Everglades National Park and surgically implanted radio transmitters in the snakes to track their movements.
Six of the snakes were released in areas 13 to 22 miles from where they originally were captured. To the researchers’ surprise, the snakes figured out which way was home, and they stayed on track for months even when temperatures dropped and the cold-blooded snakes were less active. Unlike other snakes, the pythons moved with a purpose through their landscape instead of slithering randomly. It took the snakes three to nine months to get back to their original locations, according to the researchers.
Little is known about pythons’ movements in their native habitats in India and other parts of Asia, and researchers had expected the snakes to establish new home ranges where they were released, said Shannon Pittman of the University of Missouri-Columbia, the study’s lead author.
It’s not clear how the snakes mapped out their routes — whether they relied on smell, light or some kind of magnetic force. If researchers can figure out what the snakes look for in the landscape, then maybe they’ll have an easier time spotting pythons in the wild, Mazzotti said.
“I can’t say it’s going to provide us with any magical management solutions. It’s really neat that the pythons do this,” Mazzotti said.
Along with Pittman and Mazzotti, the study’s authors include researchers from Davidson College, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service.
Estimates for how many pythons now call South Florida home vary wildly, ranging from several thousands to 100,000 or more. The tan, splotchy snakes can disappear in the vast wetlands, and researchers say they’ll fail to see a python they’re tracking with a radio tracking device until they’re nearly standing on it.
Florida’s population of Burmese pythons likely developed from pets let loose either intentionally or in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
State and federal officials have evaluated specially designed traps, dogs trained to sniff out pythons and a massive amateur hunt to try and get a handle on the invasive python population. So far, only cold weather and “exotic pet amnesty days,” where people can relinquish non-native species with no questions asked, have reliably delivered pythons to officials.
Florida prohibits possession or sale of the pythons for use as pets, and federal law bans the importation and interstate sale of the species.