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Maine biologist wins national prize for system that traps invasive snakes and lizards

derek york.jpg
Maine Department of IF&W
Derek Yorks, a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, holds a snapping turtle.

By day, Derek Yorks is a wildlife biologist for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, specializing in reptiles. But he and a friend have been working evenings and weekends to develop a system that uses artificial intelligence to identify and capture invasive snakes and lizards in a robotic trap.

This week, the device won a Theodore Roosevelt Genius Grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The trap system would include a camera and a low-powered computer. Similar to popular apps like iNaturalist, it would identify the species.

"So it would use that technology," Yorks says. "And then, going one step further, with regard to say an invasive snake or lizard, it would trigger motors to close the doors of the trap, when it did identify the target species. And it would be a live capture."

Yorks says the $100,000 award will allow the team to deploy better prototypes. Maine has no invasive reptiles, but he hopes it will be effective for safely catching species such as Burmese pythons in Florida, or brown tree snakes in Guam.

Meanwhile, Yorks says he's been using garter snakes to refine the system.

Murray Carpenter is Maine Public’s climate reporter, covering climate change and other environmental news.