Burmese pythons may be big and scary, but they are hard to find. Now, researchers can enlist the aid of mosquitoes to find the invasive snake in south Florida, according to a study by a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researcher.

Lawrence Reeves, a post-doctoral researcher at the UF/IFAS Florida Medical Entomology Lab in Vero Beach, conducted part of his doctoral research at UF on interactions between pythons and mosquitoes. He found that three species of mosquitoes are feeding on Burmese python.

“There is very little known about the ecological interactions between the python and animals that they don’t eat. Pythons have an obvious effect on mammals, because they’re eating them,” Reeves said. “But we don’t know how the python’s interaction with mosquitoes affects the ecosystem in general.”

Reeves and his team collected mosquitoes at a facility in Florida where pythons were housed in outdoor cages, and recovered Burmese python DNA from the blood meals of three species of mosquitoes. “This is important because it tells us that mosquitoes feed from pythons, suggesting that we can use mosquitoes to detect the presence of pythons in south Florida,” Reeves said.

Researchers have long struggled to come up with ways to detect and capture pythons, which are one of the more worrisome invasive species in south Florida, Reeves said. “Pythons present a challenge because the probability of detecting one in the field is very low – they are cryptic, semi-aquatic, and their coloring helps them blend into the environment,” he said.

Most recently, UF/IFAS researchers have used local residents who volunteer to hunt python, dogs who are specially trained to detect the snake, and Irula tribesmen from India. Still, the pythons are no easy prey. “They are really good at hiding and they live in places that can be remote and difficult to access,” Reeves said.

Now, instead of manually hunting for pythons, researchers can outsource the job to mosquitoes. By testing local mosquitoes for Burmese python DNA, we can learn which areas of Florida are home to the snakes, Reeves said. “We want to conduct biodiversity surveys through mosquitoes,” he said.

In the future, researchers plan to study if mosquitoes pick up diseases from Burmese python and pass them on to other animals or humans, Reeves said.

“In the U.S., other snake species are suspected of playing an important role in the transmission of West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis virus,” Reeves said. “We know that snakes can become infected with pathogens and pass them along to mosquitoes. We just don’t know if that is happening with the Burmese python in the Everglades and the local mosquitoes.”

Researchers have recently learned that Burmese pythons can become infected with the chikungunya virus and spread it to mosquitoes. “We don’t know how important this is in its transmission, or if the virus is then passed on to other animals or humans,” Reeves said. “That will likely be a subject of future study.”

Reeves’ study is published in the journal PLOS ONE. Click here to read the study.