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Florida Python Trackers Remove Two Giant Mating Balls in Record Day of Snake Hunting

March 4, 2024 - Blog

Ian Bartoszek didn’t need the beeping radio receiver to know there were pythons nearby. As his team of four walked single-file into the dense oak woods of South Florida, they couldn’t help but notice snake sheds littering the ground.

“In my 10 years of doing this I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much snake sign in one place,” says Bartoszek, a wildlife biologist and science coordinator for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “The ferns were all batted down. It looked like a group of bears had been rolling around but it wasn’t bear sign, it was snake sign. So we knew it was about to get real.” 

As he monitored the receiver, Bartoszek guided his colleague who was cutting trail with instructions like “eleven o’clock” and “one’o clock.” The other two teammates kept an eye out for invasive snakes and had already picked up a pair when the woods thinned and someone announced, “Pythons.”

Conservancy biologist Ian Easterling kneels beside the 16-foot, 125-pound female located in one of the breeding balls. Easterling, intern Cody Weber, and Toronto-based volunteer Ken Flute made up Bartoszek’s team this season, which runs from November through April. Photograph courtesy Ian Bartoszek / Conservancy of Southwest Florida

There, in a sunny patch of crushed ferns, was their scout snake — a radio-tagged Burmese python named Hisstopher — and a writhing ball of pythons containing five males and one 85-pound female, with two other males nearby. All told, Feb. 21 was a record-setting day for the researchers: In one 24-hour period Bartoszek’s team had busted up two breeding balls and removed 11 snakes, or roughly 500 pounds of invasive pythons, from the landscape.

The discovery wasn’t so much a surprise as another day in the life of Bartoszek’s team, which has been diligently tracking scout snakes in a 150-square mile area outside Naples through the winter as part of a decades-long fight against invasive Burmese pythons. In the time since the Conservancy of Southwest Florida began its radio telemetry program in 2013, the team has removed a total of 35,000 pounds of pythons, or about 1,300 snakes, from the landscape.

This 11-foot Burmese python swallowed a 31.5-pound whitetail fawn; Adult whitetail deer hoof cores recovered during a necropsy of a large female python at the Conservancy. Photograph courtesy Ian Bartoszek / Conservancy of Southwest Florida

So far researchers have relied on 110 scout snakes to lead them to reproducing females in the Everglades over the years, with Bartoszek’s team currently tracking about 40 tagged males. Python breeding season in South Florida peaks around Valentine’s Day (“you can’t make this stuff up”) and Bartoszek’s team is working seamlessly to locate, remove, and euthanize the invasive critters. As we’ve previously reported, invasive pythons are devastating Florida’s native wildlife, with one 2023 study showing pythons had consumed 76 different species, including whitetail deer, alligators, bobcats, muskrats, marsh rabbits, and great blue herons. (Less often, pythons become prey of native critters; a scout snake named Loki was killed by a bobcat last year.)

Pythons have also pushed farther north since they were first recorded on the northern edge of the Everglades in 1979. Now wildlife managers are finally starting to regain ground in isolated areas thanks to our growing knowledge of the critters and removal efforts by experts like Bartoszek.

Expert Python Hunters

For roughly half the year, Conservancy researchers attempt to locate each scout snake in the Everglades. If the male is alone, the crew will move on to the next target, cycling through each of their numbered and named scouts every week or two. If the snake has company, Bartoszek’s team moves like a well-oiled machine. “Python,” he explains, is a kill word for the team, and it triggers a coordinated response of team members pinning and bagging snakes. As his right-hand researcher Ian Easterling puts it, they all know how these late-winter snake-tracking missions are going to end. 

“You have a high probability of finding big females when you walk in on your males at this time of year,” says Bartoszek. ​ “We know these animals really well. We’re tracking them, but we know how to read behavior so we’re hunting them at the same time.”

Despite the high ecological stakes, python hunting with a team of experts is just plain fun. Occasionally they run out of bags or capture a snake so big it won’t fit into a bag, as was the case with one of the big females they caught in Collier County last month that had to be carried out over their shoulders. The crew packs the pythons back to the Conservancy lab where they’re studied and euthanized. One common criticism from the public (often delivered via social media ) is that researchers should just shoot the pythons where researchers find them in the field. That’s inadvisable for a few reasons, says Bartoszek.

The 16-foot female was too large for a snake bag, so Bartoszek loaded the live snake directly into his kayak. Photograph courtesy Ian Bartoszek / Conservancy of Southwest Florida

“They’re much easier to move around when they’re alive than when they’re dead. In the breeding season they tame down real quick. I think there’s some kind of hormonal thing going on. It’s how I was able to get that snake in the kayak. She was a little upset and then she was like, ‘alright’, and she sort of went limp. We know the drill and we’re able to put them in the bag. … It’s a pretty impressive creature. We have a lot of respect for this animal and they’re here through no fault of their own. But invasive species management doesn’t have a happy ending.”

The Promise, and Limitations, of Scout Snakes

Radio telemetry at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida started as a python research project and has since evolved into a removal program. 

“We study the animal to better understand how to remove them. It’s definitely the front lines of applied science for invasive species,” says Bartoszek. “A few years into the study we realized our males are finding us big females so we weaponized the snakes.”

Deploying scout snakes has become the most effective python management tool available to wildlife managers, with the US Geological Survey and the University of Florida also running snake-tracking programs. Useful though it is, the technology is anything but modern.

“We’re using old-school technology. Radio telemetry is World-War-II-era tech. And we’ve made that work, we have developed a methodology that works well for our area. But we are not winning the war. We are winning key battles.”

Easterling (left) and Bartoszek carry out the big female and two male pythons zipped into their backpacks. A female python lays an average of 46 eggs in each clutch; studies have shown that multiple male pythons can contribute genetic material to a single cultch. Photograph courtesy Ian Bartoszek / Conservancy of Southwest Florida

In the decade that Bartoszek has been monitoring scout snakes outside of Naples, he has seen some of those males shift their home range.

“Or they won’t even lock onto breeding females during a breeding season. That’s suggestive that there aren’t as many reproductive targets for them. That tells me we’re moving in the right direction,” Bartoszek says. “We feel like we’re trying to hold the line outside of town while we wait for landscape-level control tools to be developed. We’re not there yet.”

Read Next: Watch: Snake Hunters Catch the Longest Python Ever Recorded in Florida

Although he’s heard every wild python-trapping idea under the sun, nothing so far has proven as effective as radio telemetry. Genetic-based management is not Bartoszek’s expertise, but he suspects gene editing or related techniques may be the key to reducing the population.

“[Most ideas] just don’t scale up when you’re dealing with a cryptic predator in a vast Everglades system. No one has developed an effective trap yet,” says Bartoszek, who remains cautiously optimistic about targeted python management. “But we’re actively working on collecting that information so we can help ourselves design better … tools. Personally I think our best investment is in genetic-based technologies that are yet to be developed for potential python control. I just haven’t had someone come into my lab yet and show me a better way to find these large female pythons off-grid. The day that happens I’ll hand them the torch and wish them well.” 

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