Turning the tables on invasive species

A Python Bowl, featuring a football made from Burmese python skin.

A new camera that can see pythons better than human eyes.

Plates of lionfish filets, including some caught by a Villager who hunts the spiny fish.

These are some of the ways Floridians are thinking creatively to gain an upper hand in the fight against Florida’s invasive species.

State leaders, university researchers and environmental groups consider such creative solutions because they’re trying to prevent invasive species from doing the most damage they could to native wildlife and habitats.

Each solution becomes more and more important by the day, given the ecological damage these species wreak.

It costs at least $500 million annually for Florida to manage invasive species, according to a joint report from the National Park Service and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

For example, Burmese pythons in the Everglades and lionfish on Florida’s coasts have gutted wildlife populations, from marsh rabbits and deer on land to bass and grouper underwater.

Even though these harmful species don’t do their worst damage in the tri-county area, it’s still possible to find them.

In Marion County, two Burmese python sightings were confirmed in the last seven years, including one in 2018, according to the Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System, a University of Georgia project that catalogs nationwide invasive species sightings.

A different kind of big game

The plight of wildlife in the Everglades at the mouths of Burmese pythons received an elevated platform this year: A tie in with Miami’s hosting of the Super Bowl on Feb. 2.

Friday marked the launch of the Python Bowl, a 10-day python hunt that FWC and the South Florida Water Management District co-organized with the Miami Super Bowl Host Committee.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the challenge last month while holding a football made from python skin.

But the Python Bowl, which continues through Sunday, involves a different kind of big game — trophies of giant snakes that can grow up to 20 feet long.

In a news release, DeSantis said the challenge was organized to address the disruption pythons pose to the natural food chain and threats to Florida’s native animals and plants.

“The protection of our environment and natural resources is critical,” he said.

Invasive species management is just one of a handful of environmental causes the Super Bowl committee has supported. Last year, it partnered with the Ocean Conservancy to promote conservation of Florida’s coastlines and participated in a coral reef restoration project.

While the capture and removal of pythons helps, it may feel like it’s not enough because more pythons take their places.

A single female Burmese python may lay from 50 to 100 eggs at once, according to FWC.

And finding them can be hard because of how they can hide within the grasses of the Everglades.

To work around that challenge, researchers at the University of Central Florida developed a hyperspectral camera that can see through grass to track the movements of pythons in the wild.

It’s a means of spotting pythons in the wild with a better range of sight than the human eye, according to optics and photonics professor Ron Driggers, who led the project’s research team.

The camera, which UCF researchers created with the Kissimmee-based research and development company Imec, seeks images in the electromagnetic spectrum at about 850 nanometers.

Light that the camera emits is invisible, Driggers said.

“Ever see the near-infrared cameras at McDonald’s keeping an eye on you while you drive through?” he asked. “You can’t see the light coming out of their LED illuminators, but they can see you.”

In this near-infrared spectrum, the distinction between wavelengths reflected by the snake and the environment are great enough to identify where the snakes are, impeding their ability to hide.

The waves make the grass appear whiter and the snake appear darker, Driggers said.

“The snake loses its camouflage,” he said.

Driggers’ team tested the camera in the Everglades and said it worked well.

Researchers now wish to develop another version of the camera for longer-term field trials in the Everglades. Driggers said he applied for state funding to make it possible.

Species fit to eat

While it may be hard for the average person to hunt pythons or develop a new way to track their movements, there’s a simple way they can participate in invasive species’ removal: Eating them.

Seafood restaurants in the Florida Keys, Vero Beach, Melbourne and Jacksonville are among those with lionfish on the menu.

Villagers who are part of clubs that frequently travel to coastal areas, like The Villages Scuba Club, have tasted lionfish on their journeys.

Warren Gross took it a step further on a diving trip last year to St. Lucia. He spearfished his own lionfish with a team of hunters from a local dive shop.

The opportunity came up when he went to arrange the itinerary for one of his days of scuba diving. He went along because he thought it would have a positive effect on the coastal environment.

“I went to a specialty training course on hunting and cleaning lionfish,” said Gross, of the Village of Glenbrook. “The first time, we (caught) 27 lionfish and barbecued them on the beach.”

Lionfish are edible, though the fish’s venomous spines must be removed before preparing and cooking them.

“It’s a firm, white fish and it’s nice and tasty, with the right sauce like a lemon relish,” Gross said.

While lionfish is among the most ecologically damaging invasive species that humans can eat, it’s not the only one.

Specialty meat suppliers statewide and nationwide sell the meat of feral hogs, Asian carp and nutria, species that, like lionfish, are known for their voracious appetites for native creatures.

And even some common supermarket fare like the tilapia fish and the leafy green vegetable watercress are considered invasive species in the wild.

“It’s a great idea that people are harvesting invasive species and trying to find markets for it for cuisine,” said Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont who also serves as the “editor-in-chef” of Eat the Invaders, a website that educates the public on edible invasive species.

Roman began researching culinary uses for invasive species after noticing people harvesting European green crabs, an invasive crab found on the East Coast that preys on native crustaceans.

That’s one of the invasives he’s tried, comparing the taste and texture to softshell crabs.

And trying feral hog meat spoiled Roman — he thought it tasted better than pork.

“The wild hog was moister, a little richer, and it put me off supermarket pig for a long time because it felt so bland in comparison,” he said.

Roman sees the creative thinking in fighting invasives as different tools in the toolbox, not only in removing the animals, but also raising public awareness of their environmental damage.

“For some of these species, they’re here and there’s no going back,” he said. “My goal is not to see another species on the website we can eat.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.