For four weeks, more than 1,500 people from 38 states and Canada have been beating the bushes across South Florida, hunting pythons and hoping to win a prize.
Florida's Python Challenge, which began with a lot of hoopla Jan. 12, winds down with a whimper Sunday night. As of Friday, the hunters had found only 50 snakes out of a population estimated to be 5,000 to 10,000. A female python can replace that number with a single clutch of eggs.
But the scientists studying the Everglades pythons are ecstatic about the information they have been able to gather as a result of having so many people looking for the snakes at the same time.
"It's been an unprecedented scientific effort," said Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida biologist overseeing the collection of data from the hunt.
Mazzotti said he expects it to provide fresh findings about where the snakes live, what they eat, how people miss seeing them and where they got all the toxic mercury that their bodies contain. What has been found so far "suggests to me that the invasion is further north than we expected," he said.
Meanwhile, state wildlife officials are so delighted at how global news coverage of the event raised awareness of the python problem that they're thinking of holding another one next year.
"I think we'll do it again," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Chairman Ken Wright, an Orlando land-use attorney.
Wright's fellow wildlife commissioner, "Alligator Ron" Bergeron, has been urging federal officials to allow the next hunt to include the 1.5 million acres in Everglades National Park, where no hunting has been allowed since the park was created in 1947.
"I don't think we can get it under control without that," said Bergeron, a developer and rodeo champion who once got in trouble for wrestling an alligator that then bit him.
Bergeron, who caught a 12-foot python during the hunt, said that when he asked National Park Service officials about the possibility, they said hunting is not allowed. "My response was, 'Well, hunting is going on in there now, because this snake is in there hunting your whole food chain.' "
Everglades National Park superintendent Dan Kimball was not available for comment Friday.
Biologists at the park have been sounding the alarm about the invasion of exotic species such as the python for years. The problem captured worldwide attention in 2005 when Everglades National Park employees snapped photos of a python that had died while attempting to swallow an alligator, and the photo went viral.
The bigger risk is to animals smaller than the gators. In a report published last year, Mazzotti and a team of scientists said they found that between 2003 and 2011, the areas where pythons had proliferated saw a 99 percent decrease in raccoons, a 98 percent drop in opossums, a 94 percent drop in white-tailed deer and an 87 percent falloff for bobcats.
"We observed no rabbits or foxes," the report noted.
So far nothing has put much of a dent in the python invasion — not a government effort to trap and track them, not a severe cold snap, not even the Atlantic Ocean. Some pythons are showing up in the Keys, having apparently swum there from the mainland.
"I don't know of any approach that shows any promise of eradicating them," said Davidson College professor Michael Dorcas, co-author of Invasive Pythons in the United States.
Last year the wildlife commission hit on the idea of the Python Challenge, offering $1,500 for the most pythons killed and $1,000 for the longest python. The hunt would be limited to four wildlife management areas on the outskirts of the national park, and hunters would be required to record the GPS locations where they found their quarry and turn in the carcass for scientific examination.
The idea of tracking huge, exotic snakes through Florida's most famous wilderness attracted a lot of amateurs like Eddie Ford, 38, of St. Petersburg, who normally writes apps for iPhones. He went down during the first weekend of the Python Challenge to try his luck. He found nothing and hasn't been back.
"It's bizarre there's not more that have been caught," he said. "I think it's kind of been a dismal failure."
Ford got off light. Two would-be python killers from Tennessee got lost north of the park and had to be airlifted out Thursday, suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration. They found no snakes either.
More successful were licensed professional snake slayers like Ruben Ramirez, 40, of Miami, who is part of a team called Florida Python Hunters. Although he wouldn't say how many he'd killed, Ramirez is looking forward to when the commission hands out the prizes on Feb. 16.
"We're in the lead. I'll tell you that much," he said.
According to Wright, the reason why so few snakes have been caught is that the winter was too warm. Cold weather would have flushed more pythons out of their hiding places to seek the warmth of the sun.
But Mazzotti and Dorcas said 50 seemed fairly reasonable, given the limited area of the hunt, the difficulty in getting access to some of the wetter areas of the River of Grass and the fact that the snakes are so well camouflaged.
"It's almost what I would expect," Dorcas said. "It might even be a few more."
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]