During a recent study on a wildlife refuge near Miami, Florida, researchers were monitoring the movements of possums and raccoons along an urban interface when one of the GPS-collared critters went radio silent. The possum’s mortality signal was perfectly still, which is what you’d expect from a dead animal. But when the collar started moving again after hours of inactivity, the research team had a hunch that it was giving off signals from inside the belly of an invasive Burmese python.
“That’s the signature signal that they got eaten by a snake,” Michael Cove, one of the partners on the study, told the Tampa Bay Times. Burmese pythons were introduced to Florida in the 1990s, and they’ve been wreaking havoc on the state’s ecosystems ever since, which is why Cove and his team decided to go after the snake. “This thing was [living] underground,” he said. “It took a month of tracking the snake (to capture it).”
When they finally caught the snake and wrestled it from its subterranean hideout—an elaborate cave system beneath Key Largo—the researchers euthanized it and removed the GPS tracking collar from its stomach. The reptile weighed 66 pounds and measured 12 feet in length. It was a pregnant female with the potential to lay up to 100 eggs.
While tracking down an underground Burmese python using GPS signals is an impressive feat in itself, the team’s successful hunt may have broader implications for future efforts to rid Florida of the damaging invasive snakes once and for all. By collaring only adult possums, and raccoons, researchers could target the large pythons that are capable of swallowing mammals of that size. (How big can possums get, for example? In 2021, a Minnesota man shot a giant 14-pound possum.) And those tend to be egg-laying females. Through selective targeting of breeding females, snake hunters could put a bigger dent in overall python numbers than they do with current hunting methods.
Cove and his team members hope that their newly-developed technique will eventually be employed in other parts of the Sunshine State, including the Florida Everglades. They’ve already had success tracking down and killing another massive python—a 77-pound pregnant female. And they’ve deployed 46 additional GPS collars in the Crocodile National Wildlife Refuge.