A team led by Auburn University biologist David Steen ’11 spent part of his spring semester on a snake hunt. They participated in the 2016 Python Challenge in south Florida, an event sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida.
The event was geared toward eradicating the Burmese Python from the region and raising awareness of the serious consequences posed to the environment by the invasive predators.
Competitors were tasked with finding and capturing as many Burmese Pythons as possible between Jan. 16 and Feb. 14. Top awards went to the team with the most captured pythons and the team that captured the longest python. The search area consisted of 1.5 million acres of swamp and sawgrass, terrain that provides easy camouflage for the snakes. Although it is estimated that as many as 100,000 Burmese Pythons inhabit the Everglades, in 2013, the only other time the Python Challenge took place, approximately 1,600 people participated and only 68 pythons were captured.
The reason for such a low number of captured snakes is their superior camouflaging ability. Steen, who received a doctorate in biological sciences from Auburn in 2011 and is now an assistant research professor in the university’s College of Sciences and Mathematics, said his team has utilized a variety of hunting techniques to increase the chance of locating and capturing pythons.
The team drove a vehicle, which allowed them to quickly scan the landscape hoping to stumble upon a snake crossing the road or basking in the sun; they walked approximately 35 miles, slowly searching every nook and cranny along a canal; and they used a bicycle in an attempt to cover more ground while others remain on foot. The bicycle technique proved the most successful.
“We were in the Southern Glades Wildlife and Environmental Area, which is a hotspot for python spotting, particularly along a large canal running through the property,” said Steen. “Sean Sterrett, who is another member of our team, took a bike to cover more ground. Sean was biking and saw movement on the side of the canal, and when he got out he found himself tackling a large python. We had spent days talking to each other about what we would do if we saw one. Would I be brave enough to do it?
“He proved himself brave enough and took it on. It was a large python, about 10-feet long. He was all by himself with one bag at the time. So he started calling everybody. There’s pretty bad reception out there so his calls went to our voicemail. Later, when we realized he had left all these messages—‘Hey I’ve got a big one here and need a bigger bag. Give me a hand’—we all started running toward where we thought he was.”
Sterrett is a herpetologist and postdoctoral researcher at the United States Geological Survey in Massachusetts.
“It was an out-of-body, surreal, adrenalin-rush type experience. I am a herpetologist and have caught some really big snakes, but nothing this big,” said Sterrett. “When I saw the snake, I stepped back and assessed the situation and realized I needed to grab it before it got away. I reached in and didn’t know where I was grabbing it–it turns out I was about 6 inches behind the head, and that was just enough space for it to turn and grab me. I wrestled with it a little bit to get it under control. It took a while because it was a feisty snake.”
Sean Graham ’11, assistant professor of biology at Sul Ross State, was also on the Python Challenge team. Graham and Steen worked toward their doctorates at the same time in the lab of Craig Guyer, a professor of biological sciences at Auburn who is a widely recognized herpetologist.
The fourth team member was Stephen Neslage ’05, a senior coordinating producer at The Weather Channel who received a bachelor’s degree in radio-television-film from Auburn in 2005.
“People believed that when Hurricane Andrew came through, exotic pets got flooded out of people’s homes, and that’s how pythons got into the Everglades. Dave helped us prove that is probably not true. He busted the Hurricane Andrew python myth for us,” said Neslage. “When he said he was going to do this Python Challenge, I thought, ‘It sounds like a heck of an adventure.’ The thought of going into a harsh landscape, hunting an apex predator and taking it alive—that’s a rush.”
A conservation biologist, the most important tool Steen brought to the competition was his high-level of expertise derived from years of extensive herpetological research. Among his latest research endeavors is developing a project with Auburn’s Canine Performance Sciences program to evaluate whether detection dogs can be used to find Indigo Snakes in south Florida. In the past he also helped out on an Auburn School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences project investigating how effective people and dogs were at finding Burmese Pythons in the same region, an experience that taught him a lot about locating pythons in the wild, as well as the unique set of challenges that come with hunting the enormous predators.
“I have been bitten by almost every type of nonvenomous snake in the Southeastern U.S. so I’m not particularly intimidated by Burmese Pythons. That said, capturing a python can be harrowing,” said Steen. “These are big and potentially dangerous animals. They have a serious bite, and it’s something you don’t want to take too lightly. Capturing a python needs to be done very carefully. You grab the snake from behind its head. If it is large, it is ideal to have another person there to control the coils. Once the snake is in hand, you can put it in a large pillow case.”
In the end, the Auburn team caught only one Burmese Python and didn’t place in the competition. Until next time.