~by Frank Gromling
July 2, 2012: Python Dogs
We all know that dogs are man’s (and woman’s) best friend, but how many of us know that these wonderful creatures are also hunting the invasive Burmese python?
In the Everglades National Park in South Florida, Burmese pythons were introduced over 20 years ago through a combination of events – releases by pet owners whose snakes had become too large and the destruction of a snake collector’s warehouse by Hurricane Andrew. Regardless of the method, Burmese pythons are a top predator in the Glades.
Growing to 16 feet and 200 pounds, these constrictor snakes are killing off a variety of animal species, including opossum, rabbits, raccoons, fox, deer and bobcats. Even alligators are prey for pythons.Alligator-python dual. © NPR
So far, scientists and Park rangers say there is no successful method to eliminate the pythons, which can reproduce fast and appear to have no natural enemy that can control them naturally. So, what to do?
One innovative method has been to use detection dogs to find the pythons, thus allowing the snakes to be given to a National Park Service biologist at the Everglades National Park. Some snakes were euthanized, some tagged with radio telemetry devices for further study and tracking, and some donated to the Nature Conservancy for use in training personnel how to catch snakes.L-R: dog handler Jason Dewitt, researcher Christina Romagosa, doctoral student Melissa Miller and dog trainer Bart Rogers. Black Labrador retrievers Ivy and Jake. © Auburn University
The idea to use detection dogs came from the Army Corps of Engineers, which approached Auburn University’s EcoDog program to see if dogs could be trained to track pythons as a possible control method for the species. The Labrador retriever duo Ivy and Jake was trained by Terry Fischer, chief canine instructor, and Craig Angle, associate director of animal health and performance. Fischer went to Florida to pick up odor samples of the species to imprint the dogs with the scent and teach them to find it
Jake and Ivy, both black Labrador retrievers, helped the researchers capture 19 pythons, between six and eight feet in length, including a pregnant one with 19 viable eggs. Burmese pythons in their native range in South East Asia have been known to reach up to 20 feet and weigh almost 200lb. The National Park Service has counted about 2000 Burmese pythons that have been caught in and around Everglades National Park since 2000.
The Auburn study found that dogs and their sense of smell were two-and-a-half times faster than people visually searching, but people did have the advantage in extreme humidity. Searches by detection dogs are ideal in the cooler months when dogs can work longer periods of time without overheating. Dogs can also be used throughout the year as part of a rapid response team going to a python sighting, which can be helpful in an urban, as well as in the natural environment.
The dogs are trained to ‘alert’ by crouching down, when they got within 15 feet of a python. Although the snakes typically do not strike when approached, the dogs were put into a truck so they would not come into contact with the python. The black Labs, natural water dogs, had to be trained not to go into the water in search of pythons because that could be too dangerous for the dogs and the handlers were not prepared to do water captures of the snakes.
The canine partners found 19 pythons, one of which had 19 viable eggs, although pythons can have up to 100 eggs at a time. The dogs were found to be more accurate than humans at finding the pythons except in hot, humid weather. In a test in canals, the dogs were 92 percent and humans were only 64 percent accurate at finding the snakes.
Though the dogs only helped to capture 19 snakes of the thousands in the wild, they aided in adding to research on the species in Florida. When each snake was captured, information like temperature, barometric pressure, location and other factors was recorded. At this point, any help is valuable in the crusade to control this invasive monster.
Frank Gromling, Publisher
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Frank Gromling, author of Frank’s Whales and Tracks in the Sand, is the publisher for Ocean Publishing. He has been a volunteer leader for the Right Whale Survey Project since its start in 2000 and is the publisher for Jean-Michel Cousteau’s four-book series on National Marine Sanctuaries. Frank is an avid conservationist and public speaker who works diligently with many groups in the marine conservation arena.
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