MIAMI — Federal wildlife officials alarmed by an infestation of Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades have tried radio tracking devices, a massive public hunt and even snake-sniffing dogs to control the invasive species. Now there's talk of snaring the elusive pythons in specially designed traps.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture received a patent in August for a trap that resembles a long, thin cage with a net at one end for the live capture of large, heavy snakes.
Researchers say Burmese pythons treat the Everglades as a buffet, where native mammals are easy prey and the snakes have no natural predators. The population of Burmese pythons, native to India and other parts of Asia, likely developed from pets released into the wild, either intentionally or in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Wildlife officials are racing to control the python population before it undermines ongoing efforts to restore natural water flow through the Everglades. According to a study last year, mammal sightings in the Everglades are down sharply in areas where pythons are known to live.
The Gainesville field station for the National Wildlife Research Center, which falls under the USDA, is preparing to test the trap in a natural enclosure that contains five pythons.
In coming months, researchers will bait the traps with the scent of small mammals, and try camouflaging them as pipes or other small, covered spaces where pythons hide, said John Humphrey, a biologist at the research center. Future tests might use python pheromones as bait.
"There's still more to be learned, there's still more to be tested," Humphrey said. "This is just one of your tools that you have to put together with other things to get the problem solved."
The trap was developed to catch exotic snakes without ensnaring smaller, lighter native species, Humphrey said.
The 5-foot-long trap is made from galvanized steel wire with a tightly woven net secured to one end. Two separate triggers need to be tripped simultaneously for it to close, which should keep it from snaring native snakes as the eastern diamondback rattlesnake or the water moccasin.
"The largest native snakes are generally somewhat smaller than the youngest of the pythons," Humphrey said.
Humphrey developed the trap in collaboration with Wisconsin-based Tomahawk Live Trap, which is working on a licensing agreement.
"We don't expect to sell a lot of them; it's not an everybody thing, not like a chipmunk or a squirrel trap," co-owner Jenny Smith said.
It's not clear where the traps would go, or whether they would be effective in an area as vast as Everglades National Park's 1.5 million acres — all but about a hundred thousand acres of which is largely inaccessible swampland and sawgrass, breeding grounds for a variety of protected species.
It might not make sense, or even be possible, to place and monitor traps in hard-to-reach swamplands, park spokeswoman Linda Friar said.