Monday, May 6, 2013

Sniffing for Snakes

Burmese pythons are invading the Everglades, and brown tree snakes from Indonesia have nearly wiped out the native birds in Guam.
Brown Tree Snake
The first Burmese python in Florida was sighted in 1979. Hurricane Andrew probably didn't help. It destroyed an exotic snake warehouse located near the Everglades in 1992. And then there are the people who buy pythons when they're little and set them free when they become large and dangerous.

Pythons now number in the tens of thousands, Their impact on the native wildlife has been disastrous. Marsh rabbits, raccoons, and opossums have almost disappeared, and sightings of white tail deer are down by 94%. Besides which, they compete with the already-stressed native predators such as panthers and alligators.
Python devouring deer in the Everglades
Swallowing a deer.
A few brown tree snakes came to Guam as stowaways in the late 1940's or early 1950's. Now there are two million of them. They have wiped out 10 of the 13 native species of birds and several species of lizards and have brought several other species to the brink of extinction.

They are found everywhere:
In a printer
In people's homes, in vehicles, washing machines, lawnmowers, swing sets, and barbecues, to name a few.
The snakes are mildly venomous, and they often bite infants and small children.
They regularly short out power lines, causing an estimated $4,500,000 in damage every year.
Photo of a Brown Treesnake which triggered a power outage (USGS photo).
This frizzled snake was trying to reach a bird's nest.

And they are trying hard to get to Hawaii, where the idea of Snakes on a Plane is scarier than any movie.
This one was on a Qantas flight
Why didn't they think of using dogs sooner?

The breed of choice in Guam is the Jack Russell terrier. They are rescue dogs imported from California and Texas, their flight to Guam and their training paid for by Wildlife Services of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The feisty and fearless little dogs inspect outgoing cargo and transport vessels, trying to find the snakes before they actually board a plane. They are small enough to explore the nooks and crannies where a snake might hide. In Hawaii, dogs check incoming aircraft for stowaways.

In Florida they use labrador retrievers trained at Auburn University's Canine Detection Research Institute. The dogs pictured below found nineteen pythons in 2010, one pregnant with viable eggs.
Jake and Ivy found 19 pythons.
The labs have to be trained not to go into the water.