Python Pete—The Snake-Sniffing Puppy

BIOLOGISTS IN the Florida Everglades are using man’s best friend in their battle against invasive species.  National Park Service Wildlife technician Lori Oberhofer is training a beagle puppy—nicknamed python Pete—to sniff out pet Burmese pythons that have been released into the wild. Burmese pythons are a popular item in Florida’s booming exotic pet trade, and according to National Geographic, more than 144,000 of them have been imported to the U.S. from Asia since 2000. Although they are legal to own, the problem comes when they grow up. As one of the world’s largest snakes, they can reach up to 15 feet long, causing many horrified owners to dump them into the nearest swamp.

As the snake’s popularity has increased, so has the population that is invading the Everglades. In a 10-year period, park officials removed 52 Burmese pythons from the Everglades, but then in 2004 alone they removed 61 pythons from the park.Biologists believe that the pythons are breeding in the Everglades, and like most invasive species, their success is bad news for the park’s native species. The pythons appear to be eating native wood storks and mangrove fox squirrels and taking away habitat and food from the Everglade’s threatened eastern indigo snake. Tourists have even watched the giant snakes fight with park alligators.

Oberhofer is training her own puppy to search for the snakes and bark upon discovery. She is relying on the dog’s acute sense of smell to pinpoint the snake’s location. Then, park officials can capture the snake and remove it before it does more harm to the environment. Working under the assumption that the Burmese python has a unique odor that is species specific, Oberhofer has spent several months teaching Pete what Burmese pythons smell like using a captive python in a mesh bag. To protect Pete while he is working, Oberhofer will keep him on a leash and out of the water. That way he won’t risk becoming a statistic himself.

Published in Wildlife Conservation magazine by Chris Hardman

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