By Michelle Werts
Snakes creep me out. I get goosebumps looking at their pictures. I hid my face during any sequence in the last few Harry Potter films involving a large digitized snake. Yep, I’m a wuss when it comes to snakes. Yet, for the last few years, I’ve been fascinated by the story of Burmese pythons in Florida’s Everglades National Park — and a new twist involving some talented canines makes the story even better.
For those of you who haven’t been following this ecological conundrum, Burmese pythons are taking over the Everglades. I’m not exaggerating. The pythons, a non-native species to the U.S., came to this country as pets — until their owners decided that having a snake in their house that could grow to more than 20 feet in length wasn’t the best idea. So what to do with an unwanted snake from a foreign country? They dump it in the wilderness, which has spelled bad things for the Everglades.
Unlike many national parks throughout the country that were preserved because of combination of their gorgeous landscapes and important ecosystems, the Everglades is protected mainly because of its biodiversity. It’s a swampy, marshy, water-based ecosystem that is the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S., housing many rare and endangered species. It’s an unusual place where crocodiles and alligators actually live side by side. Thousands of wading birds use it for migration and breeding. And the pythons are threatening it.
Since 2000, mammal populations in the Everglades have seen a rapid decline. Bobcat, opossum and raccoon sightings have decreased in frequency by more than 87 percent, and rabbits and foxes aren’t seen anymore at all, according to a study released in January. According to study co-author John Willson, “The effects of declining mammal populations on the overall Everglades ecosystem, which extends well beyond the national park boundaries, are likely profound … Studies examining such effects are sorely needed to more fully understand the impacts pythons are having on one of our most unique and valued national parks.” And, mammals aren’t the only species at risk as pythons have also been documented to eat full-grown alligators (watch the video below from PBS’ “Nature” to see an alligator and python collide) and birds. Basically, to preserve the native wildlife that calls the Everglades home, the python population has to be controlled. But pythons are very skilled at camouflaging themselves, so how do you manage something you can’t find? By employing something that has a keener nose than you.
For years, dogs have been employed to sniff out drugs and bombs, but now, their super sniffers are being turned to ecological uses: They’re being trained to hunt pythons. For three years, multiple departments at Auburn University have been working on a program called EcoDogs, which is designed to “train detection dogs to find plant and animal species, or their sign [such as their scat or dung], in the field for the benefit of ecological research, management or conservation.” These dogs are being trained to specialize in tracking things like scat from a variety of mammals such as skunks, black bears, weasels, bobcats and foxes to invasive root fungi that’s threatening pine trees in Alabama. Black labs Jake and Ivy, though, have living targets: Burmese pythons.
The dogs were trained for six months to prepare their bodies for the physical task and condition their brains in search patterns and distinguishing the smell of pythons. Then, they were taken into the Everglades for a field test, having been trained to “alert” their handlers of a python’s presence by sitting down when they got within five meters of one, at which point the dogs went in the truck and the human snake wranglers went to work. The Auburn program is still young, but Jake and Ivy have already helped researchers catch 19 pythons in the Everglades. Researchers hope that by adding these dogs to the list of tools available to hunt and capture pythons, the management of the Everglades python invasion will become easier. Good dogs!