Evolution gave the Burmese python a nearly infallible camouflage, but technology is catching up.
A new camera developed by University of Central Florida researchers and the nonprofit company Imec uses a special wavelength of light to expose the snake as an ethereal slither against black, a ghostly coil in the river of grass.
Because pythons are cold-blooded and adopt the temperature of their surroundings, thermal imaging proved useless in hunting the invasive species.
But the camera uses a near infrared 850 nanometer wavelength (humans see between 400 and 700 nanometers) to detect the snakes, which reflect light at that level differently than the flora and waterways of South Florida.
“We measured python reflectivity and then measured grass and foliage and leaves and trees and bark, and it turns out that at 850 nanometers the reflectivity of the background was high and the snake was low,” said Ron Driggers, a UCF optics and photonics professor. “In the visible spectrum, you are losing the python in the middle of the brown dirt and green grass.”
While the wavelength shows the snake as dark against a bright background, the technology reverses it, making the snake a glowing white against black so it’s easier to detect. It can be used day or night.
Orges Furxhi, research and development manager of Imec Florida in Kissimmee, said he thinks the camera will turn the tide in the fight against the voracious python, which has been eating its way through the Everglades for two decades.
“This is a game-changer,” said Orges, noting that they also are working on mounting the camera on drones. “The way the hunters operate now, they drive the roads and look out the sides, so having a drone system would allow them to cover a bigger area.”
The first Burmese python was removed from Everglades National Park in 1979. Regular sightings began in 2000, with management programs launching in the mid 2000s. By then, breeding populations were well established with the apex predators feeding on alligators, small mammals and wading bird colonies.
Both the South Florida Water Management District and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have programs that pay hourly wages and bonuses based on snake length to hunters.
In September, the district tripled its python budget to nearly $1 million, increasing pay to hunters willing to patrol the fringes of the python range and doubling the number of sanctioned hunters to 50.
Furxhi and Orges tested the camera, which is the size of a regular DSLR camera, in a python pent at a zoo, but also during a handful of python hunting trips.
That included mounting it on hunter Donna Kalil’s custom-built “python perch” — a snake sighting platform attached to her Ford Expedition.
“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” said Kalil, who lives in Miami. “We definitely need help out there and anything that will help us spot these pythons will be an added benefit.”
Kalil, 57, said has caught more than 250 snakes, the longest of which was 15 feet, 9 inches. No pythons were spotted during the hunt with the researchers, but Kalil did bring a live python to test the equipment.
She said the next advancements in the camera technology — the drone attachment and a function that will allow the camera to identify a python and alert the hunter — will be key in increasing snake counts.
“You almost need X-ray vision to see these things,” she said about the pythons.
The cameras will cost between $2,000 to $3,000. Driggers said they are hoping to do further testing with the FWC this fall. If that goes well, the camera could be available for routine use by hunters by spring 2020.
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.