For Burmese pythons, there’s no place like home—and now a new study shows the snakes can navigate from over 20 miles (36 kilometers) away to get there.
At up to 18.8 feet (5.7 meters) long, Burmese pythons are among the world’s largest snakes, and they have become notorious in the past decade as one of South Florida’s worst invasive pests. (Related: “Longest Burmese Python Found in Florida.”)
The alien reptiles—which likely are descended from animals that escaped captivity—have been eating many of the native animals. In the Everglades, some of the python’s native prey are at risk of going locally extinct. (Related: “Pythons Eating Through Everglades Mammals at ‘Astonishing’ Rate?”)
Figuring out how Burmese pythons navigate might help scientists learn how to stop their spread, so reptile and amphibian expert Shannon Pittman wanted to find out if navigational abilities found in other snakes also exist in Burmese pythons.
“Most snakes have a home range and like to stay in that area. When they are moved to a new location, they tend to wander and try to figure out where they are,” said Pittman, who recently received her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri and is now a postdoctoral fellow at Davidson College in North Carolina.
Finding Their Way Home
To determine how well the pythons could navigate, Pittman and colleagues moved the snakes out of their home range in the Everglades and tracked how the reptiles moved. (See Everglades pictures.)
Although scientists can readily track species like wolves and birds with GPS trackers attached to the body, snakes don’t have a convenient neck or leg on which to secure the unit.
That meant each of the 12 snakes Pittman collected had to be anesthetized and get a small radio tracker implanted in its body.
As Pittman and colleagues followed the snakes over time, she was surprised to learn that the snakes were able to reliably head in the direction of their home ranges where they were captured, according to results published March 18 in Biology Letters.
Pittman isn’t sure how the Burmese pythons can home, but she believes that celestial cues are a possibility, since other snakes are known to navigate by the stars. (Also see “Dung Beetles Navigate Via the Milky Way, First Known in Animal Kingdom.”)
Overall, Pittman said that the results are important for scientists working to control the snakes.
“Biologists need to know how fast the snakes might spread and what corridors they are likely to use,” Pittman said, “so that conservationists can prevent population expansion.”
Read Homing Pythons Re-Enact Homeward Bound on our Phenomena blog.