Michael Rochford, University of Florida
This large Burmese python, weighed 162 pounds and stretched more than 15 feet long at the time of its capture in 2009. It was caught in the Everglades and was found to have eaten an American alligator that measured about 6 feet in length. University of Florida researchers are holding the python.
Burmese pythons, which can grow to more than 18 feet long, can find their way back home even when moved more than 20 miles away, found a study in the latest issue of Biology Letters.
What's worrisome is that the Burmese python has been an invasive species in South Florida since about 2000, likely stemming from accidental or purposeful releases by former pet owners. The snake's newly discovered homing skills mean that it could travel far and wide from its home base.
In short, the snakes could be poised to take over much of South Florida.
"This is way more sophisticated behavior than we've been attributing to them," co-author Frank Mazzotti, a UF/IFAS wildlife ecology and conservation professor based at the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, said in a press release. "It's one of those things where nature makes us go 'wow.' That is truly the significance of this."
Mazzotti and his colleagues captured a dozen pythons and surgically implanted radio transmitters that allowed them to track the snakes’ movements. As a control group, the researchers returned six of the snakes to the spot of their capture and turned them loose.
The remaining snakes were taken to spots ranging from 13 to 22 miles away from where they had been captured and turned loose. No matter the distance, the snakes oriented themselves toward home and maintained their bearings as they traveled. It sometimes took them up to 296 days to achieve the feat.
For now, it's a mystery as to how the snakes do this. The researchers suspect that the snakes could use smell, the stars, light, or some kind of magnetic force.
Burmese pythons have invaded the food chain in Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. There, they have been suffocating and eating animals of all sizes—even big deer and alligators. Their presence has reduced populations of native animals like raccoons, opossum, bobcats and rabbits.
Mazzotti said the discovery that Burmese pythons have amazing inherent GPS "amps up" concern about their presence in South Florida, but no more than worries over the snake’s ability to swallow very large animals.
Though they rarely attack humans, Burmese pythons have injured and even killed people. There have been reports of Burmese pythons crushing and swallowing toddlers, for example.
The snakes certainly don’t seem to be moving out of South Florida, but in 2012, the federal government banned the import and interstate trade of four exotic snake species: the Burmese python, the yellow anaconda, and North and South African python.