A giant battle: Auburn canines help in search for Everglades’ pythons

AUBURN – The scenario sounds like a low-budget movie from the 1970s: Humongous snakes are on the loose, eating everything in sight. But this is real – a problem that Auburn University and its canines are helping to combat.

Auburn researchers used detection dogs in the Everglades National Park to find Burmese pythons during a recent study on ways to manage and eradicate these nonnative, invasive snakes, which are eating native wildlife, mostly mammals and birds.

“The ultimate use for detection dogs is to suppress the expanding python population and to eliminate them in small areas, such as on an island. Our main concern is their impact on other wildlife,” said Christina Romagosa of Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. “Interaction with humans is also a problem. The snakes, like alligators, can get in swimming pools, eat small dogs and cats, and could injure a human.”

The National Academy of Sciences published a paper Jan. 31 titled “Severe mammal declines coincide with proliferation of invasive Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park.” Romagosa, Auburn Ph.D. student Melissa Miller and Auburn alumnus Robert Reed were among the 11 scientists who composed the report.

Auburn worked last year with the Everglades Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area, or ECISMA, to test how well dogs could pinpoint the snakes’ locations so wildlife agencies could remove the snakes. ECISMA partners include the National Park Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Geological Service, USDA Wildlife Services, Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, South Florida Water Management District, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, University of Florida and other federal and state agencies and universities.

The problem started years ago, most likely by irresponsible python owners, Romagosa says. The first Burmese python was spotted in Florida in 1979 and the number is now estimated in the tens of thousands. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Jan. 17 made it illegal to import Burmese pythons or transport them across state lines.

“Irresponsible people released these snakes because they became too large and difficult to care for,” she said. “Now they have reproduced many times over,” Romagosa said. “Hurricane Andrew in 1992 probably didn’t help when a warehouse containing pythons was destroyed.”

The Army Corps of Engineers contacted Auburn’s EcoDogs program in 2010 about the possibility of using dogs to help find the pythons, which led to the pilot study funded by the National Park Service’s Everglades National Park, South Florida Water Management District and Auburn’s Center for Forest Sustainability.

EcoDogs is a collaborative project between the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Animal Health and Performance Program, where the dogs are trained and maintained.

Canines Jake and Ivy, both black Labrador retrievers, helped the researchers capture 19 pythons, most being 6 to 8 feet in length, including a pregnant one with 19 viable eggs. Burmese pythons in their native range in Southeast Asia have been known to reach up to 20 feet and weigh almost 200 pounds. The National Park Service has counted 1,825 Burmese pythons that have been caught in and around Everglades National Park since 2000.

“We found the use of detection dogs to be a valuable addition to the current tools used to manage and control pythons,” said Romagosa, who also conducts research for Auburn’s Center for Forest Sustainability. “Dog search teams can cover more distance and can have higher accuracy rates in particular scenarios than human searchers. We suggest that dogs be used as a complement to current search and trapping methods.”

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, Romagosa says, 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 natural environment,” she said.

Prior to going to the Everglades, Jake and Ivy trained six months with Craig Angle, associate director of the Metcalf Veterinary Sports Medicine Program in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and trainers Terry Fischer and Bart Rogers, who taught the dogs to pinpoint the odor of Burmese pythons.

“There are very few dogs that can conduct python operations,” Angle said. “Their training is physically and mentally intense. We had to progressively condition their bodies so that they had the structural durability, speed, power, strength, cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance to conduct searches. Their conditioning program is much like an athlete’s.

“Mentally, the dogs had to learn multiple operational tasks like how to track, how to utilize different search patters, and how to work different wind currents. It is quite complicated to take a green dog and train it to locate a moving target like a snake.”

Auburn’s onsite research in the Everglades lasted six months and involved two aspects. First, searches for free-ranging wild pythons were conducted in areas along canal roads and banks.  Second, searches for radio-tagged pythons were conducted in a controlled plot in which dog and human teams’ search time and success were compared.

The dogs were trained to “alert,” or sit down, when they got within five meters of a python.

“When the dogs alerted to a python’s presence in the field, we would put them in the truck so they would not come in contact with it,” Rogers said. “The dogs could even track pythons that had been present in the area hours earlier. They did not pay attention to gators and other snakes, which would also avoid the dogs.”

Interestingly, the Labrador retrievers, which love to get wet, had to be trained not to go into the water.

“They love the water but in the training we reward them for staying out of it,” Rogers said. “We could train them to find pythons in water, but we are limited in that we couldn’t easily capture pythons if they are under water.”

During the searches, Rogers would follow the dogs and watch for their alerts. Auburn biological sciences doctoral student Melissa Miller, along with several volunteers, would capture the python and record data such as location, time, habitat type, humidity level and air temperature.

“Burmese pythons over 16 feet long have been found in the Everglades,” Miller said. “We always had at least two snake handlers present in case we encountered a very large python. A snake over 12 feet has potential to harm humans and should not be handled alone.”

The snakes were sent to Skip Snow, a National Park Service biologist at the Everglades National Park. Some snakes were euthanized, some were tagged with radio telemetry devices for further study and tracking, and some were donated to the Nature Conservancy for use in training personnel how to catch snakes.

Romagosa says the next step is for the ECISMA to develop a plan that combines the best uses of all search tools in trying to control the snake population.

“Dogs cannot eradicate Burmese pythons but can be used in conjunction with other tools such as human searchers and snake traps to help manage the population,” she said. “We hope these tools can be used to identify new locations and to suppress the expanding population.”

(Written by Charles Martin.)

Contact: Charles Martin, (334) 844-9999, (marticd@auburn.edu), or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)