Burmese Pythons being tested to produce artificial pheromone

Current zoo biology majors, chemistry majors and their professors are attempting to produce an artificial pheromone drawn from shed snake skins to hopefully lure Burmese Pythons from the Everglades.

The goal of the project, as outlined on a large poster by Allison Balloon, is to “Successfully identify the structure(s) of the chemical(s) that can be used to aid population control efforts in the Everglades National Park.  After identification, the pheromone will be synthesized and tested on captive pythons and eventually in field studies.”

The study will take years to complete and is rooted in biology and chemistry. Currently, students and faculty are working on isolating the female pheromone.

A pheromone is a chemical substance that a female snake releases that allows male snakes to trail them in the wild.

On the chemistry side, students and faculty take shed snakes skins and use a variety of processes in an attempt to isolate and hopefully identify the chemical or chemicals in the pheromone. Various processes are used including chemical soaks and a machine called a Gas Chromatography, or GC. This machine takes samples of chemicals found in the snake skins and gives a graph of peaks that helps isolate different groups of chemicals.

“We’re looking for certain peaks to appear on the GC which will correspond with certain chemicals.  As we are doing the chemical separation techniques, we look for those peaks to appear throughout the process and then we see which peaks or groups of peaks the snakes are responding to,” Sarah Varnell, sophomore zoo and wildlife biology and preprofessional biology major, said.

“Hopefully in the future we are going to isolate, identify and synthesize the chemical excreted by the female pythons that the males use for trailing the females,” Varnell said.

The science department continues to test Burmese Pythons in order to produce an artificial pheromone. (Photo by Kaitie Fox).

Once a sample of chemicals is obtained, it is tested on the snakes. Dr. Christopher Carmichael, associate professor of biology and natural sciences, heads the biology side of the study.

To test the chemical, Carmichael uses a modified y-maze. First, a male python is placed in a box with a small hole in the front. Outside the box, Carmichael randomly lays three paths on paper that the snake can follow: control, pheromone and blank. Then Carmichael will turn the lights off for ten minutes to make sure the environment is controlled, release the snake and wait for it to follow a trail.

If the study works and the snake follows the pheromone trail, it will display specific behaviors that show that the snake is interested in the chemical. The snake will follow the trail and show tongue contact response.  This is an intentional tongue movement that is different and specific to following a pheromone trail, Carmichael said.

Ultimately, these trials are trying to find which groups of chemicals will elicit pheromone trailing behavior. Once they have found which groups cause the snakes to follow the pheromone, they can start to figure out which specific chemicals they need to use to make an artificial pheromone, Carmichael said.

Success will be achieved when they see a pattern emerge that shows the snakes have a preference for a certain chemical group, said Carmichael. This, however, could take a few years.

Carmichael also said that he and his team want to see if female snakes will also respond to the pheromone because “we ultimately want to remove the females [from the Everglades] since they have babies.”

The project was made possible by a grant from the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation.

The main participants in the study this semester include Dr. Carmichael, Dr. Goff, Allison Balloon, Sarah Varnell, Andrew Dickerson, and Sarah Wahlstrom.

Alyssa Mann is a contributing writer for The Aviso.

 

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