Researchers Using "Snitch Snakes" to Help Track Pythons

NBC Nightly News - As Lucas Seiler reports, the "snitch snakes" are actually captured pythons equipped with cameras that researchers use to locate and monitor other pythons lurking in the Florida Everglades. 

By Lucas Seiler

Southwest Florida scientists are at the forefront of groundbreaking research as they work to contain the highly invasive Burmese python before the window of opportunity to do so disappears.

The snake has been spotted across Collier County after researchers at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida began studying the problem three years ago. They are following the snake and learning its behavior -- essentially cracking a code that will lead to developing a one-of-a-kind management plan to control rapid population growth.

"These snakes do pose a real threat to our native wildlife, and that's something we are mandated to protect in Southwest Florida," said Robert Moher, Conservancy of SWFL.

So how do you do that? The best way to find a python is to use a python. 

"They're called snitch snakes," said Ian Bartoszek, a biologist at the Conservancy. "They wear a wire and then rat on their friends."

The organization, dedicated to protecting the environment and quality of life in our region, has captured some of the most unique video of a python's habitat ever recorded in the area. Researchers attach radio-tracking devices to snakes, then listen to the pinging noise it transmits as they fly over land with planes and walk through the wetland.

The strategy has proved successful. Researchers have located dozens of pythons and hundreds of eggs.

One video serves as a resulting example of the approach, as the camera works its way through an underground burrow, leading to a python, a nesting point, and breeding zone. Some pythons have been located overtaking the homes of already-threatened species like the gopher tortoise. 

"We are never going to get rid of the pythons in Southwest Florida," said Moher. "But, we believe that containment is a realistic strategy."

Pythons can grow up to 18 feet long and weigh a maximum of nearly 200 lbs. The record found in Collier County is 185 lbs.

Sightings, according to researchers, have increased recently and only will continue to do so. That's why it is so important for the public to have the ability to identify the difference between native and invasive species. 

A smartphone app has been developed called "IveGot1." It allows people to upload pictures of species they snap with their iPhone directly to experts. It was developed by the University of Georgia Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health through a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and University of Florida for Aquatic and Invasive Plants also contributed.

People can also call 1-888-IVEGOT1.

It's those collaborative efforts that Moher and his team believe are so important and will lead to a solid containment plan.

"It immediately geocaches it, gives them a data point and also sets in line a network with CISMA (Everglades Cooperative Invasive Species Management area), which is an inter-agency group, and then they can deploy someone rapidly to go find the snake."

The big takeaway for the public is knowing what is harmful and what is not. Most snakes found across Southwest Florida are essential to keeping our environment healthy and functioning. But it's the nonnative snakes, like Burmese pythons, that have destroyed 90 percent of the small mammal population in Everglades National Park. And recently the pythons have been found to eat full-sized deer and even some gators in our region -- that are so damaging.