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Scientists Studying New 'Hybrid' Pythons In The Everglades

A Burmese Python.
A Burmese Python.

The U.S. Geological Survey, USGS, is collecting DNA to track a new snake hybrid in the Everglades.

genetic research study, published this month, examined the Burmese python and Indian python populations in South Florida. It found that the snakes have begun breeding and creating a new hybrid that could be the largest and most dangerous snakes in the Everglades.

Margaret Hunter is a research geneticist for the USGS and was the lead author on the new report.  She joined Sundial to talk about her research and how scientists are using water to see where pythons are migrating.

WLRN:  Do you have a personal opinion about this (hybrid python) as an invasive species?

Hunter: I am trying to be very careful in any kind of analysis I conduct and just look at them merely from the scientific standpoint. However, it is interesting that we do see this hybridization and the potential for increased adaptation in these invasive species. This case really highlights the need for us to really ensure that we're protecting our natural environments as much as we can. The pythons have become quite prolific and have done quite a bit of damage to our ecosystems in South Florida. Moving forward we try to limit any other types of invasive species that could cause similar damage and make sure that those invasive species aren't released into the environment.

And you are testing water to help us understand the python and how to find them?

This is a relatively new test and it is called environmental DNA or E-DNA and we can simply take a water bottle, collect water throughout South Florida and detect a single copy of the Burmese python's DNA in that water.

That means the python has been in the area. We don't have an exact date or time but relatively within the last week or two weeks a python has gone through that area and has shed some DNA either through skin, saliva or through waste products. Cells are lost all the time. Humans actually shed millions of skin cells a day so it's not surprising that we can pick up this DNA in the environment to use it to detect invasive species.

Does that mean that we could test the water to figure out where pythons are moving around and how to find them?

Yes. We have done that. We come across a lot of challenges with this method. First, logistically it's challenging to go out and survey the Everglades. I'm using extremely sensitive equipment. This is state of the art equipment so the processing can be quite expensive and time consuming. We have gone out and successfully detected Burmese pythons throughout South Florida and we are trying to get a better handle on some of the Northern invasion fronts by collecting water samples.

From the samples that you do have, what can you tell us about the snake's migration?

This method does not allow us to identify the number of snakes. We cannot calculate the abundance. So I'm not able to fully decide if the region has been colonized but I can calculate some statistic methods to be able to detect whether it's a highly occupied area. That has given us some information. By taking samples over time we believe that you know certain areas are indeed now colonized by these snakes.

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