Friday, February 26, 2010

Thoughts on Cold Weather and Invasive Snakes.

The cold weather experienced in southern Florida has damaged crops causing economic damage to orange growers. It has also been proposed that the cold weather would solve the python problem. A January 1, 2010 Miami Herald article by Robert Samuels states,
"Scientists have waited for years for this moment. They are hoping that the extended, freakishly bitter cold just might accomplish what trappers have been unable to do: thin the population of pythons and other invaders running roughshod over the fragile environment and native species. Or at least slow their explosive growth."

The same article quotes University Florida Wildlife scientist Frank Mazzotti saying,  "Today has been what I would consider a game changer...The pythons are going to be stunned by this kind of weather."

Other articles report 50% of the Burmese Python found were dead, describe the invasive Green Iguana as falling out of trees, and state that many invasive freshwater fish have died.

The cold snap undoubtedly brought about a die-off of individual animals that were exposed to the cold but some individuals will have been in shelters where they would be protected from the cold. They may have learned how to survive the cold weather. But, some of them, maybe just a few, have a physiology that allows them to better withstand the cold. These snakes will survive, reproduce, and leave offspring that are also able to survive cold snaps. Overtime the populations of invasive constricting snakes will adapt to the local climate that includes the occasional cold front that sags into southern Florida. Just as bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, snake populations will become resistant to cold. If the Burmese Python, African Python, Boa Constrictor populations are large enough they too will likely become cold resistant.  Natural selection works this way. It should not be a surprise to any biologist.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Patent Issued for Transgenic Snakes

The United States Patent Office issued patent US7,663,019 B2 on February 16, 2010 to Paul E. Mozdziak, James N. Petitte, and North Carolina State University. The Patent is titled "Transgenic Snakes and Methods of Making." The document suggests that transgenic ball pythons, corn snakes, and kingsnakes have been produced using a retrovirus as a vector to insert foreign DNA into the genome of snake embryos. The patent claims the transgenic snakes are useful for, "testing repellents, testing of toxicological compounds, as teaching aids, for venom production, etc." While the title suggests the patent is for snakes, the text implies that the patent covers methodology that may be applied to many reptiles. The complete document can be found at: JCM

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Invasive Constrictor Hunt in Florida

A 22 February 2010, Miami Herald story by By Susan Cocking states that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will open a special hunting season targeting invasive constricting snakes on state lands in South Florida March 8 through April 17. A hunting license and a $26 management area permit are required to take the snakes and the invasive Nile Monitor Lizard. Hunters may use firearms but not remove the snakes alive. The harvest area includes the Everglades, Francis S. Taylor, Holey Land, and Rotenberger wildlife management areas. The harvest is timed to follow the close of small game season and enable hunters to target the reptiles during cooler months when they are out in the open and easier to spot.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Large, Fossil Snake from Madagascar

Thomas C. Laduke and colleagues (2010) report on three species of Madagascar snakes that belong to the extinct families Madtsoiidae and Nigerophiidae. The assemblage lived in a highly season environment, with a semi-arid climate 65.5 to 70.6 million years ago.

The collection contained at least 16 different specimens of Madtsoia madagascariensis Hoffstetter, 1961. Laduke and co-workers have interpreted the fossils of this snake to be a heavy bodied, terrestrial generalist that probably resembled many of the modern day boas and pythons. Using the vertebrae to estimate the size of their largest specimen, they calculated a length of 5.1 meters, and a body diameter that was about 15 cm. Hoffstetter had previously reported a vertebrae of this species that was 50% than the one described in this study, and that bone predicts a length of about 8 meters. Associated with the snake fossils were the remains of Simosuchus clarki (a crocodyliform) and two small theropod dinosaurs which may have been in the diet of this snake. Madtsoiids are not known to have venom or specialized teeth for delivering venom, and Laduke and co-workers propose that it probably killed prey using constriction as opposed to just biting or pinioning prey.

In the same paper they also describe a new species of unusual madtsoid, Menarana nosymena, a snake estimated to be be about 2.4 meters in total length and apparently specialized for burrowing. They also describe Kelyiophis hechti, a nigerophiid.

The Citation for this article:
Laduke, T. C., D. W. Krause, J. D. Scanlon, and N. J. Kley. 2010. A Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) Snake assemblage from the Maevarano Formation, Mahajanga Basin, Madagascar. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30:109-138.

Python bivittatus Raised to Species Level, Again!

The article: Hans J. Jacobs, Mark Auliya & Wolfgang Böhme. 2009. Zur taxonomie des dunklen tigerpythons, Python molurus bivittatus Kuhl, 1820, speziell der population von Sulawesi Sauria 31(3): 5-16.

Abstract: The taxonomic status of the Burmese Python (Python molurus bivittatus) is reassessed and elevated to specific rank again. The population from Sulawesi, Indonesia, is a dwarf form of this giant snake that is redefined as Python bivittatus progschai ssp. n. Summary (part): On the taxonomy of the Burmese Python, Python molurus bivittatus Kuhl, 1820, specifically on the Sulawesi Population.The Indian python, Python m. molurus (Linnaeus, 1758) and the Burmese Python, P. m. bivittatus Kuhl, 1820 are constantly distinguished by two morphological characters, viz. "supralabials touching eye" versus "complete circumocular ring" and "lanceolate dorsal head pattern indistinct in front of eyes" versus "lanceolate dorsal pattern distinct to tip of snout." Despite their subspecific status (which requires allopatry or parapatry at least), the latter co-occur as several relict populations within the distribution range of the former (viz., at some sites in North India along the Nepalese border, and in East India in the Bengal region: Barker & Barker 2008), and, despite their close relationship and their ability to crossbreed in captivity (O'Shea 2007), both maintain their phenotypic identities without interbreeding in nature. This argues strongly for selective pressures against hybridization, which is what we regard as typical for incipient speciation. We therefore once more raise the Burmese Python to specific rank. A pdf of this article is available from the CNAH PDF Library at <>

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Life in Conservation

March 23, 1957 to February 14, 2010
By Chuck Schaffer

It is certainly a difficult task to put into words a person’s life in such as short tribute as this, especially after such a tragic loss. It is all the more daunting when it is to honor someone who lived such a full life, even in such a short period of time, as did John Thorbjarnarson, or John T as many of us knew him best. I’ll always remember him in a baseball cap and tattered button down shirt with a ready smile and story for any occasion. He was not only the consummate conservationist, but was a person to be remembered for so many things. He had an amazing memory for personal interests and always had something interesting to add. He always had a Manouria anecdote or sighting of them from some distant land, or news of a strange book for me. And I was certainly not unique in that respect. He was universally well liked, and I can honestly say, I never heard a harsh word spoken of him.

John was born on March 23, 1957 and died on February 14, 2010 in India. Collapsing after giving a course at the Wildlife Institute of India, he was taken to the best hospital and given the best possible care. But by then it was already too late. He was diagnosed with advanced falciparum malaria likely contracted on his recent trip to Uganda working to save the animals he loved. And John died in New Delhi, India doing what he loved, passing on his knowledge to those who will now carry his torch.

Although for many years, he had called Gainesville, Florida his home, he spent a great deal of time traveling to the far reaches of the globe – Africa, India, South America, Southeast Asia… Growing up near Old Tappan, NJ, he attended Northern Valley Regional High School, followed by College at Cornell in 1979, and later receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 1991. John was Senior Conservation Officer of the Wildlife Conservation Society and had been with them since 1993. He was also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University.

His accomplishments were many and myriad. John was well known for his studies of reproductive ecology, diet, feeding behavior, movement patterns, habitat use, social behavior, and population dynamics. But for him, this research into the ecology and behavior of reptiles, didn’t stop here as a purely academic endeavor. He utilized this data in the development of conservation programs for a number of endangered species. Seeking solutions outside of the box, he explored subsistence and sustainable use of reptiles, fitting this approach into a number of in-situ conservation efforts.

Although John was primarily known and respected as one of the world’s premier crocodilian biologists, he was much much more. Among his many exothermic interests were the American and Orinoco crocodiles, spectacled caiman, Chinese alligator, anaconda, and of course, turtles. His approach to conservation through community based programs and sustainable use were both innovative and effective.

Perhaps Anders Rhodin worded it most succinctly in his tribute, “I echo the sentiments of others as I stop to reflect on the dedication to conservation, crocodiles, and turtles that John had, and how he was always traveling to the ends of the earth and into wilderness regions to pursue his passion and work. His energy and devotion will indeed be sorely missed. How fragile is our existence sometimes and how close to the brink we all walk--yet at that brink are the challenges and opportunities we all savor. The risks we take are commensurate with the benefits we accrue--be they personal or professional. John loved his work and I'm sure he would not have changed what he did. His passing is untimely and incredibly sad, but his life was an inspiration. We shall remember and honor that life.”

His sister, Lisa, wanted me to add that, “he was he was a beloved son, brother, uncle and friend. Words can't express, obviously, what he meant to us. Thanks again for all your support."

John was a truly unique individual, one in a million as they say, and a good friend to those of us who knew him. He was incredibly well respected, putting all of his energy, his heart and his soul, into conserving the animals he loved. He leaves large shoes to be filled and will be sorely missed and always remembered fondly.
Editor- For more on John you might want to go to the blog of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, which has a nice interview with John about his work.

You may also want to see John in action in the Amazon at on the Black Caimans Project..

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Pending Legislation Impacts Prices of Designer Snakes

The following Wall Street Journal articles comes by way of HerpDigest.

Bear Market in Boas: Proposed Laws Strangle Sales of Mutant Snakes
Premium Python, Once Worth $40,000, Now Sells for Half; 'It's Just Like Stocks'

By Justin Scheck

Chico, CA—2/12/09 Wall Street Journal - The stock market is back on track, and bond markets are open for business. But now, another inflated financial market is facing collapse: mutant pythons and boa constrictors.

Premium pythons that could fetch $40,000 in 2007 now go for half that sum, breeders report. The price for a hypomelanistic boa constrictor, one with a mutation that lightens its skin tone, was $99 on Feb. 1, down from $5,000 in 2007, on, a classified-ad site that acts as a market-maker for snakes.

Ron Greenberg, a retired fiberglass-plant manager who keeps 1,000 snakes here in Chico, says demand has disappeared altogether for some boas he breeds. He can't find buyers anymore for "sunglow" boa constrictors, which sport an unnatural reddish-orange-and-off-white coloration, and fetched $3,000 two years ago.

The turning point: Senate Bill 373, which Florida Democrat Bill Nelson proposed in February 2009 to prevent situations like one in the Everglades, where escaped Burmese pythons have devoured native animals. The bill would ban importation and interstate transport of boa constrictors, anacondas and large pythons. A similar antisnake bill followed in the House.

Neither bill has passed yet, but "no one is willing to give me $10,000 for a snake when they think they may be added to an injurious-species list," says Mike Wilbanks, 41 years old, an Oklahoma python breeder.

The boa bear market comes after years of growing demand for constrictors with genetic mutations that result in abnormal colors. A normal ball python today typically sells for under $100; a "piebald" python—white with rare blotches of brown and green—can fetch $3,000.

The rarer the mutation, the more expensive the snake, and investors paid huge sums for snakes that could produce babies that brought big returns. Adam Wysocki, a Maryland computer programmer, sold his house in 2006 and spent $40,000 on a rare "lesser platinum" ball python. He had money to invest, he says, but he "wanted to do something with it that was more than investing in Microsoft or something." In 2007, he says, three of the prized snake's young sold for $18,000 each.

Last year, Mr. Wysocki's most expensive snake sold for just $7,000. While the relatively small ball python isn't on the Senate bill's trade-ban list, the market for it has been depressed, he says, because investors are afraid the snake will be added to the list.

The origins of the snake bubble harken back to the early 1980s, by many breeders' accounts, after Florida reptile breeder Tom Crutchfield recognized a photo of an albino Burmese python in National Geographic magazine.

Mr. Crutchfield, looking to breed the snake, convinced a New York reptile trader to import the albino python and two of its siblings. To pay the $21,000 for the snakes, Mr. Crutchfield took a second mortgage on his house. He rented out one python for a $10,000-a-year stud fee and says he later sold about 40 of the three snakes' young for $5,000 each.

The mutant-constrictor economy began to resemble the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century, as snake speculators entered bidding wars for rare specimens, which they began calling "investment grade." Buyers would then breed their own young mutants, selling them at high prices to other speculators who hoped to breed and sell to still others. "It's always been a pyramid thing," says Mr. Crutchfield who, after pleading guilty to charges related to illegal reptile smuggling, is back in business at age 60. "The people at the top make the most money."

As rare-colored snakes reproduced and the mutation grew more common, sell-offs caused prices to drop. But there were always new mutations that sold for outlandish prices while scarce.

Tom Burke, a 55-year-old former tugboat driver in Long Island, expected his snake investments to be a fallback during the recession. Mr. Burke says his snake sales went up in late 2008, even as the rest of the economy crumbled.

Mr. Burke explains mutant-boa business economics thus: In 2008, an albino male boa and a motley female with an albino gene cost $1,000 for a pair. Within 30 months, the pair would likely produce at least five motley albino young, which sold for $1,500 each, at 2008 prices. Minus $1,000 or so in equipment and rats and mice to feed the snakes, profits would still be greater than 100%. "People who want to diversify their income or get a better income or a higher income, they do this," Mr. Burke says. "It's just like stocks."

Like stocks, the snake market proved susceptible to sentiment. After Sen. Nelson introduced the snake bill, Mr. Burke says, demand dried up. Mike Panichi, a Brooklyn homicide detective who in 2005 borrowed from his retirement fund to invest in boas, says he got frequent inquiries from prospective snake buyers until early 2009. But now, he says, there's "zero interest." The snake market took another hit last month, when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar separately proposed adding several constrictor species to the "injurious wildlife" list that cannot be imported or carried across state lines.

Ron Greenberg, who keeps 1,000 snakes in Chico, Calif., says demand has disappeared for some snakes, like this albino Burmese python.

Bryan Gulley, a spokesman for Sen. Nelson, says he feels for the breeders, but says big snakes can be dangerous. He points to a 12-foot anaconda that was found last month in a Florida pond with a goose in its gullet, and a pet Burmese python that allegedly strangled a Florida toddler to death in July.

Snake breeders counter that most pet constrictors are less dangerous than a large dog. Andrew Wyatt, president of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, testifying on Capitol Hill against antisnake legislation, said that captive boas and pythons "are not the dangerous killers portrayed by activists in the media."

Mr. Wysocki, the Maryland breeder, has been selling his collection to fund a lobbying organization he calls the National Pet Association. The NPA is trying to rally people outside the snake community to oppose the Senate snake bill on the grounds that it could be a slippery slope toward restricting dogs and cats.

"What they don't realize is the economic impact this is going to have," says Mr. Crutchfield, the albino-python pioneer, who notes that the constrictor crunch will squeeze suppliers of snake food, too. "What about the guy who sells rats? Who's going to buy jumbo rats?"

Good question, says Bill Parker, owner of Feeder Mice Unlimited in Oroville, Calif. Mr. Parker, 76, raises about 40,000 mice and rats on a former catfish farm. His company brought in almost $300,000 in 2008, he says, mainly from reptile enthusiasts. But last year business was down about 30%, and he had to lay off three employees. If the Senate bill passes, he says, "that will kill us."