Thursday, February 7, 2013

Update - The Python Challenge 2013

The following article is a modified version of an on-line article at

The 800 participants in the Python Challenge have been actively searching for invasive pythons for almost a month, and the even will be coming to a close on 16 February. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission considered the goals of the event to raise public awareness and increase the agency’s knowledge base regarding this invasive species and how to better understand and address impacts on the Everglades ecosystem, including native wildlife.

For competitors, the challenge is to harvest the well-camouflaged Burmese python, with the chance of winning prizes of up to $1,500. Registrants have come from more than 30 other states.

To date 50 snakes have been turned in to the University of Florida for data collection.

Frank Mazzotti is leading a University of Florida research team that is examining Burmese python carcasses brought in through a statewide hunt. He's had dead snakes in and out of his lab for weeks as Florida tries to rid itself of a few very large pests.

Scientists say the pythons are squeezing Florida ecosystems the way they squeeze life out of their prey. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission created the first-ever Python Challenge this year to lower their numbers and to raise public awareness about the invasive species.

Beginning Jan. 12, participants have been able to hunt pythons in four wildlife management areas: the Everglades and Frances S. Taylor, Holey Land, Rotenberger and Big Cypress.

Fifty pythons had been "harvested" as of Tuesday, according to the Python Challenge website, which means 50 fewer snakes wreaking havoc on Florida's ecosystems and especially the Everglades. Participants can turn snakes in until Sunday.

It's hard to know how many pythons wind through the Everglades, said Robin Bijlani, the media coordinator for UF's Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center.

"There's no significant estimate anywhere, really," she said. Some counts guess 150,000, others 1,500. Mazzotti generally avoids giving estimates, Bijlani said, for exactly that reason.

Mazzotti and his fellow researchers at the center examine each snake turned in for the contest, and Bijlani said critics have been quick to point out that the contest might not make much of a dent in python numbers.

But the challenge is providing more than just a few less pounds of muscle and scale in Florida's swamps. All carcasses entered in the challenge are dropped off for examination, which Mazzotti said can provide clues about their size, eating habits and possible contamination.

It's too early to spot trends in the findings, Mazzotti said, but he's glad the challenge is raising awareness of Florida's problem with pythons and invasive species in general. When he heard about the challenge, he offered UF as science support.

The Python Challenge has received public support statewide, and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson drew attention when he joined the hunt and dropped a carcass off for examination.

The most successful hunters will get rewards, but data from the UF researchers might prove the most valuable result.

Jack Hayes, the dean for research at UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said the center is one of 13 sites IFAS operates around the state.

They function as extensions of the university that allow hands-on regional research and put researchers and graduate students from different disciplines into one lab.

About a dozen people work in the python necropsy lab, but only six or so actually perform necropsies, Bijlani said. Two people can usually perform a necropsy on a large python in about two hours, start to finish.

Ten-and-a-half foot snakes have been common, she said, although that's larger than average. Sometimes three people have to help slice the skin, remove fat pads and take internal samples.

After measurements and samples have been taken, the snake is hollowed out for hunters to reclaim the skin and meat.

Mazzotti said his team has been making good time handling the Python Challenge in addition to regular surveys and studies. The snakes don't even sit in the lab long enough to start smelling. It's busy but manageable.

It feels like the most time-consuming part of the challenge, he said, has been talking to the news media Frank Mazzotti keeps his countertop tidy -- sharp tools as needed, a roll of paper towels, a glass dish or two. It's free of clutter, free of smells -- and the kitchen sink shines.

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