There’s some jobs people really shouldn’t have to do. And, dudes? Every one of them is one I would not want to be involved in. Heck, most of them I don’t even want to know about.
This one, however, while exceedingly gross, is actually pretty interesting. But first, a little background.
There’s folks around who love snakes. I’m one of them. The thing is, though, I don’t love them enough to want to keep one as a pet. There are people who do. And, among those dudes, there’s people who are so irresponsible and — basically — idiotic enough that they buy a snake, knowing it’s going to grow to a huge size and do it anyway. Then, when — surprise! — the snake grows to a huge size, they just toss it outside somewhere in the wild, leave and never look back.
That sort of thing’s happening in the Florida Everglades. Thanks to idiotic pet owners, the ‘Glades are suffering through an invasion of giant snakes. Burmese pythons, to be exact.
The snakes, first reported in the (Everglades) park in 1979, are likely descended from released or escaped exotic pets. Their current population is in the thousands, and they are proliferating rapidly. “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,” said Carla Dove, head of the National Museum of Natural History’s Feather Identification Lab.
So, with that in mind, she began having the stomach contents of captured Burmese pythons shipped to her from the Everglades National Park. Yeah, that’s right, she gets the enviable task of rooting through semi-digested, sloppy, goopy remains of birds eaten by Burmese pythons shipped to her so she can identify the bird species.
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.”
In the past year, Dove has identified more than 25 different species of birds taken from the stomach contents of approximately 85 of the Burmese pythons infesting the Everglades. Even better, the snakes — as they grow larger — start noshing on things other than birds, including alligators and deer. Yeah, you read that right, dudes. These Burmese pythons can get seriously big — up to 23 feet in length, weighing in at 200 pounds with a girth the size around as a telephone pole. These suckers can get huge!
For now, Dove said she envisions a three-step strategy for ridding the ‘Glades of these monster reptiles: education (making sure idiots don’t do idiot things), prevention (keeping new snakes out of the ‘Glades), and suppression (killing any exotic snakes found in the park).
That’s something for others to work on, though. Dove gets to stick to wading through the goopy garbage and identifying bird and other animal species under attack.
And that, dudes, is a job I’m more than willing to let her handle.