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article imageIn tracking Burmese pythons, 'it's all about food and sex'

By Karen Graham     May 5, 2015 in Science
Learning more about the home range and normal movement within the Burmese python's habitat will provide much needed information in controlling the invasive species in the Everglades national Park in Florida, according to a new study by the USGS.
Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) are native to Southeast Asia. These large constrictors can grow up to 20 feet in length. The first sightings of this invasive snake were documented in south Florida in the early 1980s, but the Burmese python was not officially recognized as a reproducing population until 2000.
Even though the U.S. Department of the Interior officially banned the importation of these constrictors into the U.S. in 2012, the established breeding population in the Everglades national Park had already gotten out of hand because of a lack of effective control methods.
Habitat tracking study done on Burmese python
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) embarked on the largest tracking study ever done on the Burmese python, lasting 5,119 days and using radio and GPS tracking devices placed on 19 pythons, caught and then released after placement of the devices.
In the course of the study, the researchers were able to identify the size of the python's home range and discovered the snakes "shared common areas" used by multiple snakes.
Kristen Hart, a USGS research ecologist and lead author of the study said, These high-use areas may be optimal locations for control efforts and further studies on the snakes’ potential impacts on native wildlife. Understanding habitat-use patterns of invasive species can aid resource managers in designing appropriately timed and scaled management strategies to help control their spread."
The research team learned the average home range of Burmese pythons in the Everglades was about nine square miles, with the snakes having a preference for sloughs and coastal locations within the park. "It has to do with food and sex," said Hart.
Hart described the study's findings, pinpointing where the constrictors went to eat, mate and find shelter during bad weather. She said common-use areas tended to be tree islands inside the confines of the wetlands park. It was very noticable that this congregating on tree islands took place even if the pythons were not the predominate species in a particular area.
Burmese pythons are among the five largest snakes in the world. They are large-bodied constrictors and can live as long as 25 years, with the females producing clutches of eggs ranging from eight on up to 107 eggs. The Burmese python population has grown to the point that recent studies have shown they have made a significant impact on the mid-size mammal population in the park.
This impact on native species is alarming. Not only are the pythons competing with native animals but they are threatening the native biodiversity of the park. Statistical studies have shown there are an estimated 300,000 Burmese pythons in the Everglades, a number that will never be completely eradicated.
Past efforts to scale back the python population have met with limited success. They are actually difficult to spot, despite their large size. They have an almost natural camouflage called cryptic coloration. "They're the color of mud and palm trees and detritus and leaves," said Hart. "And they're quiet."
The study was published in the Journal Animal Biotelemetry on April 1, 2015 under the title: Home range, habitat use, and movement patterns of non-native Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park, Florida, USA.
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