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'EcoDogs' sniff out pythons in Florida's Everglades National Park

EcoDogs Ivy and Jake eye a pregnant Burmese python at Everglades National Park.
EcoDogs Ivy and Jake eye a pregnant Burmese python at Everglades National Park.Auburn University

ORLANDO -- Some bomb-sniffing dogs trained to help fight terrorism are turning their olfactory attention toward a different scourge: Burmese pythons in Florida's Everglades National Park.

The dogs are members of "EcoDogs," a three-year-old collaboration at Alabama's Auburn University between the science departments and the school's Canine Detection Research Institute, which trains dogs to detect explosives.

"The dogs are really, really good," said Christina Romagosa, a biologist at Auburn.

She said in a test of python detection in south Florida, the dogs could cover a search area 2.5 times faster than a person.

"People can only see that the snake is there if they can see the snake. The dogs can smell the snake even if it's not visually apparent to us," she said.

Todd Steury, an Auburn conservation biologist and co-founder of the project, said many of the EcoDogs were found temperamentally unsuitable for indoor explosives work but thrive outdoors searching for ecological targets.

Steury estimated training a new dog to detect a scent takes six to 10 weeks. Training for each additional scent takes "about 10 minutes. You can do it by accident if you're not careful," he said, by inadvertently rewarding the dog for something you weren't looking for, which then becomes part of the dog's repertoire.

Two black Labrador retrievers from EcoDogs, Ivy and Jake, went on assignment in 2010 to demonstrate to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers their potential usefulness in battling the python problem in the 2,358-square-mile Everglades park.

Environmentalists fear the pythons are upsetting the native ecological balance of South Florida. The invasion is generally attributed to both irresponsible pet owners dumping their snakes and 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which destroyed an adjacent exotic snake warehouse.

In controlled experiments, the EcoDogs success rate in finding pythons at the park was 75-92 percent, Romagosa said. The dogs helped researchers trap 19 pythons, including a pregnant snake with 19 eggs, according to an EcoDog report.

Linda Friar, spokeswoman for the Everglades National Park, said the snakes are so thoroughly adapted to the Everglades, and the park is so wild and inaccessible that there is no expectation of eradicating them, even with the dogs' help. The best hope is to prevent the pythons from spreading and be prepared for future invasions of new exotics, she said.

Romagosa said analysis is underway to determine whether the dogs can play a role in a rapid response team and whether funding their role, in a cost-cutting era is possible.

"The dogs would be useful in a scenario where we might not be sure the python has moved on beyond a certain range. The dogs can give us an idea of whether the species is present or not," she said.

Meanwhile, Ivy retired and was adopted, Steury said. Jake switched to a new project assessing the deer population in Alabama, looking for fawns and deer antlers.

Other EcoDogs are rooting out a tree fungus damaging forests in the state, and locating various skunk, bear and other animal populations based on their scat, or droppings.

"Pretty much a dog can be trained to find anything," Romagosa said.

Three years of working with the dogs disproved a common misconception that a smart dog is best, added Steury.

"The worst dog is a really smart but kinda lazy dog. Because that dog is always trying to figure out how he can cheat. Once you reward him for cheating, he's done. He'll never work again. The best dogs are the ones that are kind of dumb but just work really hard. We can train those dogs to work all day long and they're the best detection dogs," Steury said.

And the dogs enjoy the work so much that ones like Kasey, who searches for weasel, bobcat and gray fox scat, eventually lose interest in the reward, he said.

"She finds a scat, you'll give her the ball, she plays with it for a really short time, then she's back to the search. She likes the search," Steury said.

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