Hunters snag 68 snakes in Florida's Burmese python challenge

Researchers and wildlife officers hope the contest will allow them to learn more about Burmese pythons so they can control their exploding population in the Everglades.

What started as a few irresponsible pet owners dropping their unwanted pets into the Everglades has exploded into an ecological epidemic. So researchers, wildlife officers and scientists organized a hunt to combat Florida's out-of-control Burmese python infestation.

The final count: 68 snakes.

But only 65 serpents have been extracted from the wild and euthanized.

That's because, as ABC News reports, three of the biggest bagged pythons were actually reintroduced back into the marshy lands they came from, fitted with two transmitters each in hopes they'll lead researchers back to breeding females, who can lay up to 100 eggs at a time.

Three pythons released back into the wild with tracking devices

Three pythons released back into the wild with tracking devices
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"It's breeding time and females attract males and we have three eager young lads sitting out there with radio transmitters on them who can lead us to the breeding female and we can catch her," Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife at the University of Florida, told ABC News.

Organized by officials with the University of Florida and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee, the "Python Challenge 2013" ran from Jan. 12 to Feb. 10. The grand prize of $1,000 went to Blake Russ and Devin Belliston of Miami for capturing an 11-foot snake.

Originally, a 10-foot snake was given the cash prize for the longest serpent, but scientists realized they'd made an error in measurement when they examined Russ and Belliston's catch. Sizing up a live python, Mazzotti said, can be extremely difficult.

Scientists believe as many as 150,000 Burmese pythons could be wracking the lush wetland's precious ecosystem by indiscriminately devouring other species. Researchers say rabbits and foxes in the Everglades have disappeared, and raccoon, opossum and bobcat populations have plummeted by as much as 99 percent.

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In the Florida wetlands, Burmese pythons have no natural predators. One Burmese, quite infamously, swallowed an alligator whole, though the snake later burst open and died.

The python's dispositions make them both impossible to spot and easy to kill. It's why the 1,600 amateur hunters who took part in the challenge captured only 68 of the species.

The snakes are lazy, rarely moving when the weather is warm enough for them to stay submerged in brush or water. Spotting one when their coils match the color of their surroundings can be like picking a needle out of a haystack. A positive ID really gets a hunter's adrenaline running.

"It's like seeing Bigfoot," Bryan Russ, Blake Russ' 35-year-old brother, told The New York Times in a profile about the professional snake-hunting team — the Florida Python Hunters — that the Russ brothers are members of.

The Russes' mentor and founder of the team is Ruben Ramirez, who's been snagging snakes for 27 years and took in a $1,500 cash jackpot for bringing home the most snakes this hunt: 18.  

Despite the relatively low number of Burmese pythons hauled in, Florida wildlife officials are nothing but pleased with this year's results. In fact, they're already preparing a similar hunt for next year.

"In our view that number — the number that were harvested, taken out of the ecosystem — was an unprecedented number of samples that will help us answer questions about pythons and make us more effective at tackling this problem, removing them from the system. We're going to learn so much," Nick Wiley, executive director of the wildlife commission, told the AP.


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