Studying invasive giant pythons’ partially-digested meals

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The native wildlife of the Florida Everglades is under attack by thousands of Burmese Pythons, thought to be the spawn of pet snakes that have escaped or were abandoned by their owners. To understand the impact of these predators on endangered birds, wildlife biologists at Everglades National Park have sought the help of Carla Dove, head of the National Museum of Natural History’s Feather Identification Lab. Dove’s specialty is identifying dead birds that have been hit by planes, for examples, or, in this case, are inside the bellies of captured (and killed?) pythons. From Smithsonian:

Birddddd The first way to prove the danger they’re causing to the environment is to figure out what they’re eating and how much of it they’re eating,” Dove says. So (Everglades biologist Skip) Snow began sending Dove stomach samples from captured pythons.

Identifying any birds in such samples is messy, time-consuming work—a task Dove embraces with gusto. “My job is not so glamorous,” she says, picking up a brown glob in a plastic sandwich bag. She washes it in warm water, then dries it with compressed air: “Feathers are made of keratin, like your hair, so they are very durable and easy to clean and dry.” She examines them under a microscope, looking for fine variations in color, size or microstructure that tell her which taxonomic group a given bird belongs to.

Dove then takes the sample into the museum’s collection of 620,000 specimens from more than 8,000 species of birds and looks for a match; it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. “This is the way we’ve been doing it for 50 years,” she says. “We have DNA now, but DNA is not going to help us in this case”—the python’s digestive system has destroyed or contaminated the genetic material—“so you really have to rely on those basic skills of identifying things based on your experience and your knowledge…”

“This is pretty close to the most memorable work I’ve done,” Dove says, “because it’s been really smelly.”

Attack of the Giant Pythons

photos: top, national park service; above left, Stephen Voss