'The snake started moving. it gave me a big shock but we had to catch it'

June 15, 2007

A close encounter with a killer python in Florida has not deterred St Andrews PhD student Joanne Potts.

As a young researcher, Joanne Potts had an early introduction to the rigours of fieldwork by literally stumbling upon a python in Key Largo.

Her discovery of the first known Burmese python in the Florida Keys could be crucial in preserving critically endangered species of rats and mice, on which the snake preys. It has led to a massive survey of whether there are more of the giant snakes in the Key Largo area, including a "python hotline" and a range of precautionary measures to prevent more pythons dispersing further down the Florida Keys.

Ms Potts, who is in the first year of a PhD at St Andrews University's Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling, was in Key Largo researching endangered woodrats. She was following a signal from a rat fitted with a radio collar when she lost her footing, stumbled, and came face to face with the python.

"It started moving and the beeping moved. We realised it had consumed a woodrat. It gave me a big shock but we knew we had to catch it."

She summoned help and caught the snake. Once dissected, the python was found to have eaten two rats. "Pythons are ferocious predators," Ms Potts said. "They will eat until they are jam-packed full with rats and mice.

Both the Key Largo woodrat and Key Largo cotton mouse could easily become extinct if the python has an established population there."

The experience has helped convince Ms Potts to pursue a career in academe.

"I will be looking to do a postdoc," she said. "I really like the academic environment because you're always learning."

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