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Citizen scientists holding a Burmese python

Citizen scientists monitor, report invasive reptile species

The toughest part of wrangling a Burmese python is not pinning it down, but getting the entire 7-foot long snake into the cotton snake bag, said Ellen Butler, a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Master Naturalist.

“He almost got away from me,” she said. “I frankly can still not believe that I did it. Now when I’m in the field and I come across a snake, I have a lot more confidence.”

Butler is one of several Florida Master Naturalists who learned to catch Burmese pythons to complete their Master Naturalist final project on invasive reptiles. Those who complete this project can become citizen scientists in the Everglades Invasive Reptile and Amphibian Monitoring (EIRAMP) Citizen Science Program.

These citizen scientists help researchers collect data on invasive species in south Florida and educate the public about the issue. Invasive species are animals that are not native to the region and compete with native species, which can throw ecosystems out of balance.

The Burmese python is one such species that’s had a big impact on the Florida Everglades, said Ken Gioeli, natural resources agent for UF/IFAS Extension St. Lucie County and EIRAMP citizen science facilitator. In addition to pythons, EIRAMP citizen scientists learn the biology of other invasive reptiles, such as tegus, iguanas, rainbow agamas and curlytailed lizards, he said.

“The nice thing about citizen scientists is that they can really expand our reach and our ability to get things done,” Gioeli said. For example, volunteers use a mobile app called IveGot1 to snap a photo of a suspected invasive reptile. These reports get sent to experts like Gioeli who identify the animal and record the GPS location of the sighting.

EIRAMP citizen scientists are also trained to monitor locations on Florida’s Treasure Coast for signs of invasive species. This data gets sent to the “Croc Docs,” a team of researchers at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center in Davie, Florida, who enter this information into a database that tracks invasive species in south Florida.

“Monitoring these areas allows us to set a baseline for invasive species in that area and better measure the impact of invasives over time,” Gioeli explained.

Master Naturalists who have gone through the EIRAMP program also work to educate public sector employees, particularly those who work in or near nature areas, about invasive species. “We target these groups because they are the ones most likely to encounter invasives,” Gioeli said. “The goal is to show them how to properly report sightings so that scientists can manage the problem before it explodes.”

So far, the program has given its “Eyes and Ears” training to 900 city and utility employees in the Treasure Coast region. “People are seeing these reptiles, but the key is to report them,” Gioeli said. “If they are not properly reported, the scientists studying the problem don’t know about it.”

By: Samantha Grenrock, 352-294-3307, grenrosa@ufl.edu

Source: Ken Gioeli, 772-462-1660, ktgioeli@ufl.edu

UF/IFAS Photo