...often blows up in our faces or bites us on the ass.
This actually started a few decades ago as the true hideous villains of the later twentieth century, migrating bands of white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant suburbanites, moved away from the cold and snowy climate of the northeast and Midwest to the sunshine state of Florida. They overran the cypress swamps, mangroves, and wetlands bringing with them the collective gross indulgences of American consumerism. Had this simply resulted in what is now my usual whining about suburbia, malls, and golf courses everything would have still been kosher. The Florida Panther, the manatee, and many other native life forms would still be on the edge of extinction but our collective consciousness, or lack of one, could deal with that in the face of such progress.
However, somewhere along the way some bright boy full of that entrepreneurial spirit thought it would be a good idea to sell baby pythons to all those spoiled kids living in the bright Florida sunshine. No longer would those upwardly mobile kids have to suffer catching and the playing with native non-poisonous snakes as they tromped in the woods but now they could have their own tiny constrictor from some far away land. It all started well and good with a glass aquarium tank, some dirt, a few plants, and some cheap small mice bought at the local pet shop. After some time the small mice were moved up to rats, and after that to a live chicken, or two.
This is where the problem started, after a few years the little snake that all little Johnny's friends thought was cool had grown to a four or five foot specimen that just sat in its tank staring at mommy's little dog or cat as it walked by. Even little Johnny, now with girls and cars on his mind, had started to get a little nervous as he lay in bed at night with the snake staring at him from across the room with none of the "loving feeling" still between them.
Somehow the solution to this problem more than once was to have little Johnny let the snake loose in the wilds of Florida. The snake obligingly crawled off in to the grass but instead of living a monk's life and then having the courtesy of dying alone, found Ms. Snake on the wildlife version of eHarmony and started having lots of little snakes. Now we have a problem. All these snakes have taken quite nicely to that same Florida sunshine and are raising a good bit of Hell on the local environment.
Recent stories have popped up of these pythons taking a liking to the free and easy lifestyle. A whole manner of pet dogs, cats and native alligators are on their menu. They are swimming their way down the Florida Keys showing up in Key West for Fantasy Fest I guess. In addition, if my more than slightly drunk brain at that time heard things right some southern Florida schools are even giving small children classes about their slithering neighbors trying to prevent them from ending up on the menu along with Rover, Kitty, and Wally Gator.
The History Channel show "Monster Quest" even dedicated an entire episode to the pythons. As a fan of the show many times I had seen teams of well meaning nerds place special motion activated cameras out in the wild trying to capture pictures of Bigfoot, dinosaurs, the Loch Ness Monster, and several other mythical beasts. The only time the motion cameras picked something up was when several very loose pythons were caught on camera crawling the clear area between the Everglades and a subdivision. The final kicker of that episode was some guy from the Miami zoo telling us that given the environment of the southeast United States the pythons will be quite at home going all the way north to Virginia and west to Texas.
Like college freshman being dropped off at orientation, the Burmese pythons released into a snake-proof enclosure at Savannah River Ecology Laboratory Thursday seemed wary of their new surroundings. The snakes are part of a study at the Savannah River Site that's testing the contention that pythons are capable of surviving in climates similar to their natural habitat, which includes much of the Southeast U.S.
Of the seven snakes released into the enclosure, many were reluctant to leave their traveling bins and remained coiled when ushered out. Although some snakes assumed a defensive position, the inactivity isn't unusual for Burmese pythons.
"These guys tend to sit around until something comes by to eat," said Michael E. Dorcas, the Davidson College associate professor of biology who's leading the study in conjunction with SREL researchers.
The study has come about because Burmese pythons, kept as pets for decades, have been introduced into a new habitat. The snakes - which can grow longer than 20 feet, live for 15-25 years and are native to Southeast Asia - were either released or escaped into the Florida Everglades where they are wreaking havoc in the foreign ecosystem.
"There are certainly thousands of them in the Everglades," said John D. Willson, of SREL, who is one of many technicians involved with the study working primarily as a volunteer. "They camouflage so well, we can't really determine how many there are."
There is concern over what the pythons would do if there were a mass migration north.
The year-long study, which is being filmed by National Geographic and will air early in 2010 on the National Geographic channel, will examine the ability of invasive Burmese pythons to survive in a semi-natural enclosure at a different temperature than the Everglades. The study will specifically monitor the survivorship, body condition, weight, behavior and thermal biology of the pythons.
"It's not going to be definitive but it will provide insight to determine if the climate models are accurate," Dorcas said of the study, which is being funded in a joint effort by SREL, Davidson, the University of Florida and the U.S. Geological Survey. "The information will be important in determining what course of action can be taken so they can't be established in South Carolina."
The snakes will be checked daily to ensure they are in the enclosure. It's for this reason that, when the first snake was released, someone cautiously cheered, "Be free ... Within the enclosure."
In the unlikely chance any python escapes, it can be tracked by tracing a radio transmitter that was surgically implanted into each snake Wednesday. The pythons are also identifiable by an ID tag that was also implanted during surgery and an ID number scrawled on it. Additionally, the technicians can identify the pythons by their distinctive patterns.
Aiken is an ideal location for the study since it fits the climate model in question. SRS is a logical site to conduct the study since it's the home of SREL, which already had a snake-proof enclosure.
"It provides opportunities found nowhere else in the world," said Dorcas.