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Pythons let loose around lab for habitat study

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J.D. Willson couldn't imagine a creature as large as the Burmese python becoming part of South Carolina's ecological landscape.

But barely a decade ago, neither could scientists in Florida, where the invasive reptiles have established a breeding population that is expanding northward.

"Part of what we want to learn is how far north they could survive," said Dr. Willson, a postdoctoral research scientist at Savannah River Ecology Lab, where a yearlong study is under way to determine whether the giant snakes could spread to Georgia and South Carolina.

Burmese pythons, a staple of the pet trade for decades, can grow to 20 feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds. They have spread rapidly through south Florida, with population estimates in the tens of thousands.

"Nobody knows for sure how they got there, but the prevailing opinion is that they were knowingly or unknowingly introduced," Dr. Willson said.

Theories include pythons escaping from pet stores after Hurricane Andrew to a more likely case of owners simply releasing them.

"What we do know is that they are certainly reproducing and expanding their range," Dr. Willson said.

The fear is that they will continue to move north, but how far north remains open to debate.

A 2008 study by the U.S. Geologic Survey concluded most of the Southeast includes habitat that closely matches the python's native range in Asia. However, another scientific paper, published in the Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society , argued against those conclusions, Dr. Willson said.

"That paper suggests that there is a genetic group of snakes in the Everglades that is probably a Burmese python subspecies that mainly stays in the tropics and could only live in south Florida, south Texas and maybe a few small areas of southern California," Dr. Willson said.

The experiment under way at Savannah River Site should help settle the argument.

"The purpose of the project here was to take snakes directly from Florida and bring them to SREL and expose them to our natural weather and climate," he said.

Seven snakes were brought in initially, and three more -- including a 13-footer that is the largest -- were released Saturday.

The studies will include monitoring types of habitats the pythons use during colder weather, their tolerance to cold and other factors that would determine their adaptability to new areas.

Dr. Willson said precautions are being taken to avoid escapes.

"We have a well-designed, snake-proof enclosure, and we've modified it quite a bit, with an eight-foot-high smooth wall set in 20-inch concrete, to accommodate these larger snakes," he said. "We're also using all-male snakes, so there's no chance they could reproduce."

As an additional line of defense, each python was implanted with a radio transmitter that will allow scientists to find them.

"This is important in the research because they are incredibly hard to find, even when they are right there in front of you," Dr. Willson said.

The size and appetite of the Burmese python makes it a dangerous addition to any environment.

Florida scientists have been catching and examining the snakes as fast as they can, and also collecting the growing numbers of pythons run over on roads. One standard part of the studies includes a checking to see what's in their stomachs.

"They've recorded virtually every warm-blooded species in southern Florida, including certainly rodents and raccoons, all the mid-size mammals, whitetail deer, bobcats, wading birds -- just about everything," Dr. Willson said.

The giant snakes are also known to attack and eat alligators, though there is still some debate over which is the superior predator.

"So far, from what they've found, the gators are winning about half those battles, but the snakes are winning the other half," Dr. Willson said.

The project is a joint effort that also involves the National Park Service, University of Florida and Davidson College. UGA professor emeritus Whit Gibbons and Davidson College professor Mike Dorcas are also involved in the studies.

SRS is the perfect backdrop for such an unusual experiment, Dr. Willson said.

"This is a study you couldn't do, for logistical reasons, anywhere else," he said. "Geographically, it is perfect, and we have the facilities and a long history of herpetological research."

Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

Comments (8) Add comment
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ONLY THE TRUTH
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ONLY THE TRUTH 06/28/09 - 05:43 am
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All males???? Just what we

All males???? Just what we need.....a bunch of big [filtered word] off snakes in the area.

humbleopinion
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humbleopinion 06/28/09 - 06:19 am
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I'm more worried about the

I'm more worried about the snakes that are running loose in Washington DC. Big snakes around here may only make a few dogs and cats disappear, but the more serious predator, the Democrat Python, will make our money and our futures disappear at a fast rate.

lovingmom
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lovingmom 06/28/09 - 07:52 am
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Keep the pythons where they

Keep the pythons where they are. WE DON'T WANT THEM. If they can swallow a deer, they could also swallow a child.

mad_max
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mad_max 06/28/09 - 07:54 am
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"Dr. Willson said precautions

"Dr. Willson said precautions are being taken to avoid escapes".
Yeh, right. Isn't that the same thing the guy in South American said about the Africanized bees.

pizzato
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pizzato 06/28/09 - 08:37 am
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They mostly prey on juvenile

They mostly prey on juvenile deer. Besides I think a 13 footer would go a long way served right.
1 Burmese Python 5-8 foot
2 Boxes Crab boil **
4 Eggs
-Salt & pepper
-Green onion
6 tb Oil

Gut the python and peel the skin off. Cook in a crab boil**. Cool and peel off the strips of meat.
Chop and combine with egg to bind, salt and pepper and a bit of green onion. Saute in oil until brown on both sides. Serve with tartar sauce.

SCEagle Eye
959
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SCEagle Eye 06/28/09 - 08:50 am
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Hmmm. This sounds

Hmmm. This sounds interesting but given the cold here I'm not sure if determining that pythons can survive is scientifically justified. I don't think it's like armadillos, which are moving north. (Did you notice the tons of them dead along I-20 during their movement back in April/May?)

Speaking of snakes - what about the "luv gov" in S. Carolina? I hope he does not resign and continues tearing to shreds the Republican "family values" facade. The country need to rip down this hypocrisy & the gov is helping in a big way. Tip 'o the hat, gov!

corgimom
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corgimom 06/28/09 - 12:44 pm
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If they burrowed during the

If they burrowed during the winter, they could survive. All the other snakes survive the winter around Augusta, why not them?

FallingLeaves
27
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FallingLeaves 06/28/09 - 04:34 pm
0
0
Oh goodie.

Oh goodie.

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