Over the past four decades, the Burmese python, has spread throughout the Everglades and multiplied until scientists estimate there may be tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of them. Humans have been able to do little to stop their spread, in part because they are so hard to find.
Two months ago, scientists announced a new type of camera that uses infrared technology to spot the big snakes.
“This is a game-changer,” said Orges Furxhi, research and development manager of Imec Florida, which worked with the University of Central Florida on the technology. By mounting this new camera on drones, he said, that "would allow them to cover a bigger area.”
Python experts, however, are taking a more pragmatic view of the new technology. Finding the elusive snakes constitutes only half the battle, they explained.
The other half is catching them — and if they’re not on dry land, that can be tricky.
“No matter if you see a python with the camera or you see it with a naked eye, you still have to capture it,” explained Beth Koehler, who spends part of her week working at a St. Petersburg dog grooming service and the other part hunting pythons for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Florida’s python hunters generally stick to dry land when scouting for the snakes, driving the levees that crisscross the Everglades. Trying to capture the pythons when they’re in the water gives the snakes the same tactical advantage over humans that alligators enjoy in a watery landscape.
Not only are pythons likely to turn up in water-logged locations, they are also likely to be found in places in the Everglades where state and federal officials don’t want humans trampling the protected landscape, explained Florida invasive species expert Don Schmitz.
Schmitz, a biologist who worked for what’s now called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, compared the situation to another battle against invasive species in the Everglades, melaleuca.
Although the water-guzzling melaleuca trees have been found all over the Everglades, uprooting them has proven impossible in some locations because of the damage that a work crew would have to do to protected lands, he said.
But Joe Wasilewski, a biologist who has been tracking pythons for decades, said he’s hopeful that “if a python could be located with the infrared, we can run out to it in an airboat ... The beauty of this is that if the python is located and coiled up, it may stay in one place for a long time.”
And both Koehler and Martin County python hunter Mike Kimmel, who worked on testing the new technology, said being able to detect hiding snakes would be a big help.
“If you’re out there hunting alone like me, then this gives you an advantage,” said Kimmel, whose social media nickname is “Python Cowboy.”
Hunting pythons has long required a low-tech approach involving spending hours at night driving around trying to spot a snake using bright lights. Many hunters say it’s not uncommon to spend all night searching for the big snakes and go home empty-handed.
State officials hope that technology will help. For instance, South Florida Water Management District officials this year began using drones to survey state lands to spot pythons. Yet the capture rates have remained about the same.
Using infrared light to spot pythons has been suggested in the past, but snakes are cold-blooded creatures, which means regular infrared technology won’t pick them up. As a result, the researchers broadened the infrared range of sight by seeking images in the electromagnetic spectrum at about 850 nanometers, instead of the 400 to 700 nanometers used by the human eye. At that point the distinction between the wavelengths reflected by the snake and the landscape are so great that the snakes can’t hide.
The researchers determined the optimum wavelength by measuring the reflectivity of plants in the Everglades and of several pythons until they found the wavelength range that worked best. They then figured out how to reverse the negative image captured so that the snakes appear stark white against a black background.
While hunters say the new technology shows promise for detecting the location of snakes in the Everglades, it still falls short of being a surefire method for pointing out pythons. The infrared reflection picks up the presence of snakes, all right, but it can’t determine what kind of a snake is waiting in the River of Grass.
So when a hunter reaches for the reptile shown on the image, he or she won’t know whether what’s waiting is a python or a venomous cottonmouth moccasin.