Dogs Sniff Out Pythons in the Everglades

Photo courtesy of Ches Smith, © All rights reserved by Auburn University

Burmese pythons slithering through the Everglades have a four-footed foe: dogs. A group called EcoDogs, a collaboration between the science departments and the Canine Detection Research Institute at Auburn University in Alabama, is training Labrador retrievers to smell pythons that may not be detectable by people.

"The dogs would be useful in a scenario where we might not be sure the python has moved on beyond a certain range,” said Christina Romagosa, a research fellow at Auburn’s Center for Forest Sustainability in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Science, in a Reuters article. “The dogs can give us an idea of whether the species is present or not,” Romagosa, who led the study and announced the results this week, went on to say.

Two black Labradors named Ivy and Jake demonstrated their skills to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Everglades in 2010. In controlled experiments, the dogs covered a search area 2.5 times faster than a person, and their success rate was 75 to 95 percent. The labs helped researchers catch 19 pythons, including one that was pregnant and had 19 eggs.

"The dogs blew the people out of the water," said Bart Rogers, the dogs’ handler, in an article in the Birmingham News.

Captured snakes were turned over to a biologist at the National Park Service. Some were euthanized, others were tagged with radio devices or donated to The Nature Conservancy to teach staff how to catch snakes, and two were sent (in formaldehyde) to Auburn, reported the Miami Herald.

The invasives are often unwanted pets or zoo escapees, but outside of their enclosures the snakes adapt well--and even thrive--in the Everglades environment. Recent research shows that the ballooning python and other invasive snake populations are contributing to a precipitous decline in mammals, and may have a significant effect on bird populations, including the endangered wood stork.

Yet even though the dogs did well in 2010, Linda Friar, a spokeswoman for the Everglades National Park, told Reuters that the snakes are so well adjusted, and the environment so wild, that there is little expectation that any combination of efforts will eradicate the reptiles. And currently there are no plans to continue to dog training project.

Still, "they're just now starting to scratch the surface of what these dogs can do," Rogers said.

Related Article: "Everglades Pythons Exhibit New Behaviors"

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