for National Geographic News
In their growing battle against giant pythons that have invaded the Florida Everglades, national park officials there have recruited an unlikely ally: a beagle puppy nicknamed "Python Pete."
For the past few months Lori Oberhofer, an Everglades wildlife technician, has been training her seven-month-old puppy to pick up the scent of the invasive Burmese pythons.
Once he has completed his training, Python Pete will be a "first responder unit," says Oberhofer. His task: to track down snakes and bark after they have been sighted, enabling park officials to capture and remove the huge pythons.
Oberhofer got the idea from a similar program in Guam, where she researched brown tree snakes four years ago.
U.S. Department of Agriculture officials have been using Jack Russell terriers on that Pacific Ocean island to detect invasive brown tree snakes in airport cargo. The USDA aims to prevent the snakes from slipping out of Guam, where they have wiped out bird populations.
"I figured that if a terrier could be trained to sniff out brown tree snakes, then perhaps a beagle could be trained to sniff out pythons," Oberhofer said.
The Burmese pythons are castoffs from South Florida's burgeoning trade in exotic pets. One of the world's largest snakes, the python is a popular (and legal) pet snake. More than 144,000 Burmese pythons have been imported into the U.S. in the last five years.
As babies, Burmese pythons may be cute. But they grow into 15-foot-long (5-meter-long) beasts, prompting some owners to get rid of the snakes by dumping them into the forests of South Florida.
Now the giant pythons are breeding in the Everglades, threatening to overrun the national park. They may be preying on native mangrove fox squirrels and wood storks, and they could be competing with the threatened eastern indigo snake for both prey and space. Stunned parkgoers have even spotted the pythons in epic battles with native alligators.
From the mid-1990s through 2003, park officials removed 52 Burmese pythons from the park. In 2004 alone, 61 animals were taken out. Fifteen snakes were captured last month.
"There is no indication that the problem is letting up," said Skip Snow, an Everglades wildlife biologist.