PhD Candidate: Richard Burger
Supervisors: Benoit Goossens, Luke Evans.
Institution: Cardiff University
Research Questions and methods
- How do the density, distribution and habitat differ for pythons inhabiting forests and plantations?
We will initially require the design of a suitable survey method to locate, mark and recapture pythons in various habitats. Standardisation will be needed in order to get an accurate representation of population density, and allow us to monitor changes over time. Microhabitat characteristics will be measured to look for habitat preferences.
- How do home-range and movement patterns of reticulated pythons differ between these two habitats?
Animals will be surgically implanted with GPS tags in order to accurately track their movements over time. This will provide information on home range size and activity patterns, which is important for understanding the landscape-level requirements of this species, which will aid in establishing future conservation strategies. Using GPS tags, rather than the more commonly used telemetry, allows easier tracking of multiple individuals in a landscape that is difficult to traverse, allowing more accurate long term monitoring of individuals, as tagged individuals would not need to be located on a daily basis.
- Is it possible to use non-invasive molecular techniques to study the diets of pythons, and how this may differ in natural vs. human-altered landscapes?
As large generalist predators, pythons play a key role in the ecosystem, and understanding their diet is very important to look at their effects on other species, and potential benefits as controllers of pest species in plantations. We aim to use non-invasive techniques to study their diet by analyzing the fragmentary DNA remains of prey left in faeces, either using species-specific primers to analyse the predation incidences on important target taxa using PCR, or by using next generation sequencing to get a picture of all the prey species which may be encompassed within their diet.
Previous work on reticulated python diets used stomach analysis of animals caught for the skin trade, so may have had inherent biases (snakes captured close to human habitation), and some remains are not identifiable this way due to degradation.
- What conflicts exist between snakes and people in the area, how does this affect the study species and the impact the results of the other research questions, and how can these be mitigated?
We will look to carry out interviews and questionnaires with a wide range of locals that assesses attitudes towards snakes in general, measure the degree that pythons are collected for skin or meat, and the impacts of snakes upon people, such as snake bites or livestock predation. It is important to try to estimate the numbers of snakes being killed or captured when analyzing differences in populations in different habitats, but also in terms of future conservation efforts. In order to look at how we might consider establishing an education programme that looks to limit deliberate killings of snakes, we must first understand the degree to which this occurs and how people might react to such an undertaking.
We hope to establish a suitable method to be able to monitor changes in population dynamics over time, which would not only be useful as part of DGFC’s overall aim of looking at the landscape level requirements of key species, but also should go towards helping with providing an overall assessment of the conservation status of the species. By looking specifically at the effects of oil palm plantations on aspects of the ecology of this species, we can better understand how it might be affected across its range in Southeast Asia as natural habitat becomes increasingly fragmented and altered.
To date, only one other study has used GPS implants in large pythons for assessing home range, so this should towards providing further evidence of the efficacy of this technique.
Collecting large numbers of specimens and analyzing stomach contents post mortem is not possible for many rare or endangered species, either in practical or ethical terms, so it is important to be able to use non-invasive techniques. Pythons digest their prey very efficiently, so if prey species can be identified from their faeces, it stands to reason that this should be applicable in a wide range of other species as well.
Working with the community will hopefully provide ways in which we can help to study and conserve this species, and better understand the threats it may face. In order for conservation efforts to be successful, community involvement is vital.