Science and Technology

To catch a snake

Student researchers tackle Florida python problem


by Eric Gorton

 
image: /_images/news/2017/04/2017-Shannon-Richard-1000px.jpg

SUMMARY: Ever since pythons got loose in Florida, they have become an ecological nightmare, particularly in the Everglades. Pythons, like all snakes, will eat anything they can get their mouths around, from fish to birds to rodents to . . . well, you name it.


What's the best way to trap a Burmese python? After more than two decades of trying to solve that conundrum, it may come down to the flick of a tongue — the flick of a python tongue to be more precise.

Biology major Shannon Richard, who has spent hours watching video of pythons navigating mazes and recording their behaviors, said the results look promising.

Richard is working with Ricky Flores, a senior chemistry major, and Dr. Rocky Parker, an assistant professor of biology, on the project that has received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ever since pythons got loose in Florida, they have become an ecological nightmare, specifically in the Everglades. Pythons, like all snakes, will eat anything they can get their mouths around, from fish to birds to rodents to … well, you name it. And since they have no native predators in their invasive range, they're free to eat and reproduce at will.

Over the years, the snakes have altered the biota of the Everglades, primarily by consuming native mammals and birds, costing the state not only indigenous species, but millions of dollars. Wildlife officials have tried all sorts of ways to trap the snakes, including enlisting the help of tribesmen from India who are expert snake hunters. You can read about that effort in this Miami Herald article:
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/environment/article128233064.html.

Parker is a chemical ecologist who is trained in understanding chemical signals that snakes use to communicate, including how they choose their mates. The hard part, he said, is looking at compounds and determining if snakes will respond to all, some or none.

That's where Flores comes in.

Ricky Flores works in the lab wearing goggles and gloves.

Using solvents, he extracts lipids from skin sheds supplied by zoos and other places that keep pythons. With lab equipment, he separates the chemicals based on their properties and passes those potential snake lures on to the biologists. Researchers at USDA's National Wildlife Research Center, who are collaborating on the project, took the compounds and put them in the mazes to see if snakes would follow them. Videos were made of the snakes going through the mazes and sent them back to JMU for Richard to analyze.

"The way snakes analyze chemicals," Richard said, "is they pick them up with their tongue and smell them. A higher flick rate indicates they are more interested in the scent. So if there is a higher flick rate to the female lipid, then that's what they are more interested in, which is what we found."

Parker, with the help of Flores and Richard, is also applying the approach to Argentine tegu lizards, another invasive species causing problems in Florida.

The python research is ongoing with collaborators at Florida Institute of Technology and includes trials with male-female pairs.

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Published: Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Last Updated: Monday, May 22, 2017

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