A Burmese python may be a huge, fat, lumbering beast of a constrictor snake, but it’s not easy to find in the wild.
Nearly 1,600 professional and amateur snake hunters recently stomped through Florida’s Everglades in the state’s first Python Challenge. They caught exactly 68 pythons out of the tens of thousands of Burmese pythons that are believed to have infested the Everglades since the early 1980s.
"They’re gosh-darned hard to find," said Frank Mazzotti, a professor at the University of Florida who helped organize the month-long challenge, which ended Feb. 10. The contest is designed to raise public awareness of the pythons, an invasive species that crushes and eats native birds, mammals and reptiles. Most Burmese pythons are released pets.
Last month, two hunters turned their catches over to Mazzotti, who had two transmitters implanted into the pythons and into a third Burmese python that Mazzotti’s research team had captured. Mazzotti plans to track the three snakes before recapturing them in April, toward the end of mating season.
The idea is for the three male snakes to lead Mazzotti to breeding female snakes who can be captured and removed from the wild.
"The assignment for these three lads is to go find a girl -- an ovulating female, shall we say," Mazzotti told the Los Angeles Times.
Without the transmitters, of course, Mazzotti would never be able to find the snakes. Their tan, blotchy skins provide excellent camouflage. They’re very skilled in hiding in water, tall grass and underground burrows.
During the contest, Mazzotti got a good laugh watching five hunters walk right past one of the transmitter-outfitted pythons, poking through ditches, high grass and swampy ground.
"They had their eyes on the ground, but the python was up in a tree," Mazzotti said.
Those hunters who did find Burmese pythons were required under contest rules to mark the location with a GPS and to photograph the snakes. (The longest was 14 feet, 3 inches, earning its hunter a $1,000 prize). The captured snakes helped Mazzotti and other wildlife scientists learn more about the pythons’ habitats and movements within the Everglades.
"We learned a lot from the challenge -- it was well worth it, no matter how many pythons people actually caught," Mazzotti said.
Under contest rules, the other 66 pythons captured by hunters were, as the contest website put it, euthanized. Most hunters used bullets to the brain, but a few used a sharp whack -- or whacks -- of a machete to cut off the head.
And what of the three transmitter-toting pythons -- an 11-footer and two others, eight to nine feet long? All three -- and their girlfriends -- will be euthanized.