Do you have what it takes to capture one of the largest snakes in the world?
That’s the question more than 1,500 Floridians asked themselves when they signed up for Florida’s Python Challenge, a month-long competition with cash prizes that encouraged adventurous citizens to wade through the muddy swamps of the Everglades in search of Burmese pythons, some of the most ubiquitous and invasive snakes in Florida.
As many as 100,000 Burmese pythons slither through the Florida Everglades, consuming small mammals en masse, laying eggs in giant clutches, and producing a seemingly endless supply of baby pythons. Some of them can grow up to 23 feet and weigh 200 pounds.
Pythons have caused serious declines in native mammal species in the Everglades, wiping out populations of raccoons, opossums, and bobcats. But their elastic jaws and strong teeth make it possible for pythons to swallow deer and alligator too.
In their natural habitat, pythons live in the jungles and marshes of Southeast Asia. But up until 2012, when Department of the Interior banned the importing of pythons, they were shipped to the U.S. as exotic pets.
Untrained snake owners sometimes released pythons into the wild, causing immense damage to natural ecosystems like the Everglades. The Python Challenge was the latest in a series of desperate python control efforts that once even recruited dogs as expert snake-sniffers.
The Challenge was sponsored by Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and ended on February 10, with a grand total of 68 pythons caught.
One lucky Floridian took home a $1,000 prize for the longest python captured through the Challenge, at 14 feet. Two others won grand prizes of $1,500 for capturing the highest numbers of the snakes.
This might seem a small number compared to the tens of thousands of pythons still sliding through Florida marsh grasses, but experts say they were surprised by the total number enthusiastic citizen scientists were able to capture.
Cheryl Millet, who runs the Python Patrol program at The Nature Conservancy, says pythons are notoriously sneaky. “Pythons are really hard to find, even if they are right in front of you. They are ambush predators, so they can remain hidden in a small space.”
Millet has trained hundreds of people through the Python Patrol to report python sightings and to capture them safely. All 1,500 people who participated in the challenge were trained by Millet, or underwent an online course. A major focus of the training is on identifying the difference between pythons and important native snakes, like brown water snakes and corn snakes, which should remain plentiful.
Although only 68 snakes were bagged, the Challenge succeeded in its ancillary goal of raising awareness about the damaging impacts pythons have had on Florida’s natural environment, and training more people to recognize and report the giant creatures when they come upon them.
Public engagement can continue, even though the Challenge has officially ended. The Nature Conservancy has set up a hotline for Floridians who sight invasive predators at 1-888-IVE-GOT-1. Citizen scientists have already made valuable contributions.
Because of citizen reporting, Nature Conservancy staff found that invasive exotic Nile monitors (a lizard native to Africa that can grow to be six feet long) had expanded into southeast Florida. Florida officials were able to focus removal efforts on these new geographic areas, helping to reduce the lizards’ expansion.
Researchers at the University of Florida are still analyzing the demographics of the Challenge participants, to assess what motivations people had for strapping on rubber boots and hitting the muck. Millet says it was likely a mix of people interested in the cash, the fame, and those who wanted to spend time in the beautiful natural world of the Everglades.
“I heard the same story over and over again. People would say, ‘I didn’t catch anything out there, but it helped me realize how beautiful the Everglades are. I saw so much wildlife out there,’ ” Millet says. “They would tell me about the alligators and the native snakes. It really did help people. This was their natural backyard, but they had never been out there before.”
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Alison Fairbrother is the director of the nonpartisan Public Trust Project, which investigates and reports on misrepresentations of science by corporations and government. She has written for the Washington Monthly, the Washington Spectator, Grist, and Politics Daily, among others. Alison is based in Washington DC. @adfairbrother | TakePart.com