“Do you see her?” asked Hart, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. “Yeah, she’s in there,” answered Thomas Selby, a wildlife biologist. “I think she knows we’re here,” said Brian Smith, another biologist.
Smith and Selby charged into the trees. “I’ve got the head!” Smith shouted. “Grab the tail!” They stumbled out with the writhing snake in a chokehold, huge mouth agape, ready to bite.
It was actually the second time biologists got their hands on Python 51 — the 51st caught. Two months ago, they surgically fitted her with a radio transmitter, motion detector and global positioning system to study her diet and movements.
Now, the snake’s days of squeezing the life out of prey and giving birth to about four dozen babies every year are over. The scientists want to retrieve their expensive equipment and the data it contains. She was euthanized last week, along with an even bigger snake, the largest ever captured in Florida, at 171 / 2 feet — more than twice as long as former basketball player Shaquille O’Neal is tall.
Burmese pythons are native to Southeast Asia. No one knows for certain how the invasive snake entered the Everglades. The belief that Hurricane Andrew blew them there from exotic pet shops and houses in 1992, or that numerous pet owners released them when they grew too large, is likely a myth, according to Frank J. Mazzotti, a professor of wildlife ecology and conservation for the University of Florida.
“All it takes is three snakes,” he said, mating and laying an average of 50 eggs, and up to 100 eggs, per year.
Their population in the Everglades is estimated at anywhere between 5,000 and 100,000 by USGS. The National Park Service says that more than 1,800 pythons have been removed from the park and surrounding areas since 2002. No one in the park has ever been attacked by a python.
Some game officials and citizens have suggested sending bounty hunters with guns and machetes into the park. Bounty hunters are great at capturing snakes — when they find them, which is rare. Hunters are also known to execute small native snakes, mistaking them for python hatchlings.
“Someone could tell you there are 10 pythons in this area, and you could walk all day and not see them,” Smith said as he leaned on a truck, dirty and tired after wrestling Python 51 and leading the team on a two-mile hike with her live 140-pound body draped over their shoulders.
Pythons prefer warmth, but many in the Everglades have managed to survive hard freezes, leading some biologists to worry about their ability to adapt and travel north. The snake has already been swimming and slithering south toward the Florida Keys.