Florida snake trackers unearth massive python sex den

An innovative method of using a male Burmese python to track pregnant females has led conservationist officers to the largest nest of the species ever discovered.

Snake hunters locate a nest of eight Burmese pythons — the largest to date in southwestern Florida

Conservation officers display some of the specimens from the largest nest of Burmese pythons ever discovered in the Florida Everglades. (Submitted by Ian Bartoszek )
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There are your run-of-the-mill invasive species, such as Asian carp or zebra mussels — and then there are Burmese pythons.

They can grow as long as a car, and weigh more than 45 kilograms. And you can find lots of them around Naples, Fla., whether you want to or not.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida does want to. Every year during breeding season, it sends hunters to seek out and kill the snakes.

This year, they found a nightmarish bonanza: the largest nest of Burmese pythons ever discovered in southern Florida and the western Everglades. 

Ian Baroszeck was there. He spoke to As it Happens guest host Susan Bonner from just outside Naples. Here is some of their conversation. 

How did you find what I understand to be the largest group of pythons ever found in the Naples area?

We track male pythons, and they lead us to breeding females during the peak of the breeding season. 

Wildlife Biologist Ian Bartoszek with a 4.6 metre female Burmese python —located by tracking a male python — in southwest Florida (Conservancy of Southwest Florida)

So exactly how do you track a male?

Well, first we have to capture a snake, so we look for them, and then we'll locate one during the month of October [or] November. And we'll catch them, we will surgically implant a radio transmitter with our veterinarian partners, and then that animal is let loose.

We play the ultimate game of hide-and-seek, tracking that animal around the landscape. We'll follow them through the woods until they lead us to a breeding female.- Wildlife biologist and Burmese python tracker Ian Bartozeck

And then we play the ultimate game of hide-and-seek, tracking that animal around the landscape.

They turn out to be the most effective female Burmese python detectors on the planet. We'll follow them through the woods until they lead us to a breeding female.

Our animal Argo was our VIP — or Very Important Python — this year.

Around Valentine's Day he led us to a 45-kilo female that was hiding in an underground culvert pipe. And we removed her, and then we let Argo go.

And three days later, about a half-a-mile away, he led us to this breeding aggregation that had eight pythons, including Argo: seven males total, and 52-kilo female.

To date, that's the largest breeding aggregation we've seen in southwest Florida.

What stands out about this female?

She was a very attractive lady.

We have the same thing in mind — we're looking for the female pythons, because they're full of eggs. And they're remarkable animals.

They're very beautiful. They all have unique patterns, and I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that we get attached to some of our animals. We know they're here through no fault of their own. They're released or escaped from the pet trade. And they have found south Florida to their liking.

So we captured all of them. And it was a bit of frenzy. They weighed in at over 300 pounds — 136 kilos of python in one spot. So quite a bag of snake.

We humanely euthanize all the animals we capture. I do not enjoy doing that. But you can't place these animals in a zoo. You can't send them back to their native land.- Ian Bartozeck

What is the technique to catch them?

It takes a little re-programming of your brain to get ready to jump on a large snake.

When I started this project five years ago, I remember that bit of hesitation I had. And rightly so, because it's not normal to just jump in the bush on a giant snake that weighs 45 kilos.

But now I think that fear is gone — it's awareness of this animal, knowing they're not really interested in us.

I tend to joke that I'm afraid to drive on the roads here in south Florida during peak season with all the Snowbirds on the road. That scares me more than a pile of eight pythons to wrestle. 

Field Technician Ian Easterling conducting a necropsy on a 4.6-metre Burmese python, pregnant with more than 60 developing eggs. (Conservancy of Southwest Florida)

I hear talk about these animals — you name them, you're describing them with some affection. And yet the pythons that you catch are all killed. As a biologist how difficult is it to go through all of this effort knowing that they'll be euthanized?

I have a lot of respect for this species. The Burmese python is quite a striking animal, and they're just doing what they do well. But we know what's at stake here, the effect they're having on our wildlife. You have to see it to believe it.

We humanely euthanize all the animals we capture. I do not enjoy doing that. But you can't place these animals in a zoo. You can't send them back to their native land. It's unfortunate, there's really no outlet.

Written by Nathan Swinn and Kevin Ball. Interview produced by Nathan Swinn. Q&A edited for length and clarity.