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Relocated Everglades pythons can find their way home

They aren't afraid of alligators. They eat everything in sight, yet they can be virtually invisible. An army of hunters vying for cash prizes didn't make a dent in their population.

Now there's another reason to respect the horde of Burmese pythons that have overtaken much of the Everglades: Even if you take them far away, they can find their way home.

Just like Lassie, but with scales.

"This study provides evidence that Burmese pythons have navigational map and compass senses," eight scientists wrote in a just-published research journal article called "Homing of Invasive Burmese Pythons in South Florida."

Most snakes don't have that same homing instinct. Move them too far from the place they are used to and they will slither around aimlessly, trying to figure out where they are, the study says.

But not the pythons. The scientists captured six of them, attached homing devices, hauled them away from where they'd been found and turned them loose. They zoomed straight back to where they'd been caught.

The scientists made this discovery purely by accident, said the study's lead author, Shannon Pittman of Davidson College.

They had captured the pythons in Everglades National Park, intending to tag them with tiny transmitters, release them and track their movements, she said. But park officials didn't want those pythons released back into the park, even with tracking devices on them, she said.

So the scientists took the snakes to the park's outskirts and turned them loose — only to see them scurry straight back into the park, right to the spot where they had been captured.

"We were just completely amazed," Pittman said.

Every time the biologists repeated the experiment, the pythons found their way back to their origin. One of them traveled 22 miles to get back, a trip that took nine months.

How can they do this? No one knows for sure, but the study suggests the pythons may sniff their way back using olfactory clues, or they may be able to detect magnetic fields the way migrating sea turtles do.

The study calls for more research into what this discovery means as far as trying to track and control the pythons. However, Pittman conceded that most pythons found in the Everglades aren't captured. Instead, they get their heads chopped or blown off — and it's pretty hard for even a python to come back from that.

Craig Pittman (no relation to the scientist in this story) can be reached at craig@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @craigtimes.

Relocated Everglades pythons can find their way home 03/18/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 11:48pm]
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