I know an old python who swallowed a possum
And how stories change as they bounce around the internet.
Yes. They're using GPS trackers on possums and raccoons to catch invasive Burmese pythons in Florida!
In case you haven't heard about this yet, it's the...I wouldn't call it feel-good (Feel-weird?) story of the week. Basically, scientists are very worried about Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus), which are in the process of eating the Everglades out of house and home (they've eaten basically all the rabbits and have decreased populations of larger mammals by around 90%). They are spreading to the Florida Keys, where scientists are especially worried about a rodent called the Key Large Woodrat (cuter than it sounds!).
Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Are the snakes there? And are they eating the rats? To find out they pop tracking collars, not on snakes, but on their PREY. Then, when the tracking collar stops moving in the quick, jerky way that mammals move, the odds are it's dead and potentially inside the tummy of a python. Follow the signal, catch the python. Cool right?
Definitely. But...what's wild is watching how the story got reframed as it bounced around the internet. Is this a thing scientists deliberately set out to do? According to WaPo, yes it is. Or was it just a fluke, a fluke that turned out lucky? According to an earlier, more local story...maybe it was an accident all along?
Which is it? In the real, true spirit of scientific inquiry, it's all of the above. And it provides an object lesson of how stories change as they bounce around the internet.
First, an important side note. If you see someone claim "NO ONE IS reporting about X," go looking for it. Because first of all, if that person knows about X, someone is reporting on it. And secondly, sometimes local places are reporting on X, and it just hasn't worked its way up to national publications.
There's an easy way to test this claim yourself! Go to google and set up a google alert for keywords related to the thing you're interested in. Sit back and wait.
Back to pythons: With regards to this particular story? I've got a google alert for "burmese python florida" (among many, many others), and I saw reports bouncing around about it as far back as February 12. I saw it move from outlet to outlet, from a local radio station in South Florida on February 12, which popped it over to the Tampa Bay Times, and then to Fox News, and then to Field and Stream on February 15, to the Washington Post on February 18, and finally to The Guardian on February 21.
As the story moved, I watched it transform. The earliest stories are about how scientists have been tracking raccoons and possums, and surprise! One ended up in a snake. The later stories, on the other hand, are about how this was clearly the plan all along, that this was in fact a massive plan to get GPS collars on prey into python tummies.
To find out more about this, yes, I'm putting some REPORTING in this here newsletter. As I started reading these pieces, I shot off an email to Mike Cove, research curator of mammalogy at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, one of the scientists quoted in several of the pieces, and the lead scientist on this project. He's also a previous source of mine. I wrote a whole chapter on Burmese pythons (and also brown tree snakes), with a good chunk of that chapter devoted to ways that people are trying to get rid of pythons. As part of reporting that, I got to chat with Mike and follow him around the Florida Keys a good bit, including watching a team wrestle out an 11-foot Burmese python from under a giant pile of concrete and rebar. It was awesome.
They found the python I saw because it had a GPS tracker already in it. Scientists have been releasing pythons at the beginning of their mating season, armed with GPS trackers. Pythons like to mate in groups, and so when their GPS tracker stops moving, the scientists set out in the hopes of finding an orgy that would give ophidophobes nightmares.
But these GPS trackers are not the only trackers in the Florida Keys. Kelly Crandall, a graduate student, had been putting other GPS trackers on animals, too. These went on raccoons and possums that she was trapping in the area. In this case, she was trying to see how trash and cat food in the area might impact the trash pandas and possums.
But of course, raccoons and possums eat trash. Pythons eat raccoons and possums. And so one of her GPS trackers went very still one day in September. The scientists found it in the belly of a 12-foot Burmese python. "We always knew this was possible and had hoped it would work out to lead us to big snakes," Mike told me. "But the basis of the study was to better understand how much mesopredators used cat food in the environment."
Yes, cat food! People in the Florida Keys in particular love themselves some stray cats. I learned this when working with Mike previously in the Keys. A lot of people have vacation homes down there, and with their vacation homes, they, er, have vacation cats. These are outdoor strays that the snowbirds get to feeding while they are down for the summer. Of course, other midsize animals are going to take advantage. Who hasn't put out cat food and then seen a trash panda on their Ring camera?
So the collars were to see if and how much mid-size critters could be benefitting from this extra, human-provided food. As it happened, the pythons benefitted from the cat food too, in the form of eating the mid-size critters.
So the original finding was an accident, but one that they knew was likely. "I think it could scale and we are getting ready to test that," Mike says. GPS collars are, honestly, about $1000 each. Right now, he's got about 30 of them, which were deployed to study pet food, not pythons. They probably need MANY more if they're going to catch more snakes snacking.
Keep in mind, though, that this python project can only scale (get it? Python? Scale?) so much. Somewhere very small, or on the leading edge of python invasions, Mike says, with small populations of both pythons and prey. Then you could potentially collar every single possum and raccoon. Some of them will get eaten by pythons, and then hopefully you could catch some of those.
But it's only one approach. You couldn't, for example, catch every possum and raccoon further north in the Everglades and fit them all with collars to take advantage of the eventual demise. It's just too expensive, and all the effort of trapping the mammals when you could....er....trap the snakes (which are, to be fair, notoriously hard to trap). Regardless, it might be another tool, but you're going to need a massive kit to deal with the tens of thousands of snakes slithering through South Florida.
I want to know: Where did YOU see the python and possum story? Which version did you see? How did it impact what you thought of the science?
Where have you been?
And is it reading this delightful story about animals doing drugs? By accident of course. Emily Anthes takes on cocaine bear, and of course the many other animals that get drunk or high or both...often off our trash.
What about how this escaped Eurasian eagle owl that's now hunting his own NYC rats? Zoo officials are now scaling back efforts to catch him. But I personally wonder how he'll do. 90% of red tailed hawks living on rats in NYC have rat poison in their systems, from human efforts to get rid of their unwanted rodents. This eagle owl is probably going to get a dose.
A lot of you responded to last week's newsletter on creativity. Thank you so, so much. I loved how many of you felt seen. Team blacksmith. :) And if you're interested in hearing more about creativity, may I recommend the newsletter and podcast Emerging Form? A science writer and a poet talk about all aspects of the creative process. It's really lovely to listen to.
Where have I been?
I was on WHYY in Philadelphia to talk about my book. Love that we're all bonding over squirrels and how much they drive us nuts (getit? Squirrels? Nuts? I'll see myself out).
I got to read a lovely book about how artistic pursuits can benefit our physical and mental health, and talk with one of the authors for The Washington Post. The best news? We don't all have to become hardcore artists. This could be just a great excuse to sing in the shower.
Do you live in the Boston area? If you do, I'd love to see you! I'll be talking at Harvard on March 20, and people can come see it! Please do. :)