FIT researchers trying to better understand python problem

Unique ability may hold key to capture, control


ORLANDO, Fla. – The most highly sensitive thermal detector on earth isn't being used in fighter jets or by our military troops.

[WEB EXTRA: Animal Distribution]

It's on the nose of one of the most efficient predators in our state.

The Burmese Python is just one of the more than 500 exotic animals that don't belong here, but it's clearly at the top of the food chain.

Whether they are brought in accidentally, escape captivity or released intentionally by overwhelmed pet owners, our mild sub-tropical environment is a perfect breeding ground for many animals that evolved half a world away.

In fact, in an average winter, the southern half of our state has a less than a 50% chance of experiencing freezing temperatures. This leaves many tropical reptile and amphibian species with year-round survival.

Perhaps the most notorious is the Burmese Python. The large snakes have been established in South Florida for years but scientists are just now learning about their traits.

Biologists are particularly interested in how far they can migrate, the answer it seems is still up for debate.

But one thing is certain they have had a profound effect on the Everglades. 

There have been reports of a direct correlation between native animal population declines and python numbers increasing.

One reason why might be because of a unique advantage the python has over other animals.

The huge snakes have a thermal sense. While we can feel heat, they can "see" it.

Researchers at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne are working hard to learn more about how they might use these "pit organs" to hunt.

Sherri Emer, Post Doctoral Associate, has lead the research on these snakes since 2007. She says imagine looking through a thermal or night vision camera, that's what they might see.

"We think that the python might perceive it's world like the alien in the movie Predator." 

To demonstrate, Emer wrestles a nearly 10-foot Burmese into a container that will block all light once the door is shut behind it.

The snake is trained to pick between sensors that can vary by only a fraction of a degree. It has a remarkable success rate.

"It helps us understand what the animals are able to detect in the natural environment and they do actually have an advantage, "she says. "Sight and thermal overlap in the brain."

Michael Grace, Professor of Biological Sciences, oversees the research at FIT. He says understanding how these reptiles live is key to understanding how to control them.

"If we don't try to at least manage these invasive species the world may not fall apart but it will certainly change and it will change in dramatic ways."

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