Researchers have discovered an effective new way to track giant Burmese pythons, which are invasive to the US and are destroying local Florida ecosystems.
In an unrelated study of the movements and behavior of raccoons and possums in Key Largo, an island off the south coast of Florida, the researchers found that the GPS collars they attached to the small mammals could track the invasive Burmese pythons (free python,) after the superhuman snakes swallowed the tagged animals whole.
The team first made this serendipitous discovery in September 2022, when a GPS collar attached to a possum produced a mortality signal, which is emitted when an animal goes several hours without moving when it should be active. But after a few hours, the collar started moving again. Over the next few days, the collar emitted several other signs of mortality between short periods of movement. The researchers realized that the only explanation for this unusual behavior was if the possum had been eaten by a python, the researchers wrote in statement (opens in a new tab).
After tracking the collar for about a month, the team found the python, a 12-foot-long (3.7-meter) female weighing a whopping 66 pounds (30 kilograms), which was then euthanized. A necropsy of the snake showed that the GPS collar was still intact and fully functional inside the snake, even though the possum had long been digested, the researchers wrote in the statement.
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In January, researchers successfully tracked another python, a 77-pound (35 kg) female of unknown length, after the rattlesnake swallowed a raccoon wearing a GPS collar. And on February 8, the researchers tracked another GPS collar in a pile of snakeskin, which had only recently been passed by another large python, The IS South Florida Sun-Sentinel (opens in a new tab) reported.
In total, three of the 42 GPS collars attached to mammals by researchers have been ingested by snakes, while another six have gone missing. Although it is not possible to say for certain what happened to the missing collars, the researchers suspect that the pythons swallowed them and have since moved outside the study area.
Burmese pythons are giant snakes from Southeast Asia that invaded Florida in the early 1970s after being released as part of the exotic pet trade. The largest Burmese python found in Florida to date was an 18-foot-long (5.5 m) giant weighing a scale-tipping 215 pounds (98 kg) that was captured and killed in June 2022.
The pythons have done a lot of damage to the ecosystems of Florida because they are voracious eaters, reproduce quickly and have no natural predators. As a result, wildlife officers are legally required to kill the snakes if they find them in the wild (and it is safe to do so).
Related: Horrific video shows the moment a 5-foot alligator’s body was cut from the womb of a dead python
In some areas, such as the Everglades National Park, “mammals are no longer put on the collars,” because the snakes are declining local population, study researcher Michael Cove (opens in a new tab)curator of mammals at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, told The South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
In other areas, however, the new tracking technique could work, especially when it comes to locating the snakes in underground tunnels.
The team wants to continue using GPS collars to track Burmese pythons and is currently planning a new project with local agencies. “We need everything we can get to remove as many pythons as possible,” said Cove.