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Giant Pythons in Florida

November 23, 2015



Southern Florida has a Burmese python (Python molurus bivittatus) problem. The massive apex predators, native to southern Asia, are officially breeding and thriving in Southern Florida wild lands. The state is sponsoring a somewhat controversial Python Challenge where the public is invited to hunt and capture the snakes. First run in 2013, the initial challenge yielded less than 70 of the animals. The 2016 Python Challenge is expected to surpass the 1,600 or so participants of that first event. Estimates for how many of the snakes are in the wild in the state vary wildly with the best guesses spanning a full order of magnitude from 30,000 to as many as 300,000.

Burmese python

National Park Service

A 10-foot Burmese python captured in the Florida Everglades.

It’s popular in the media, but may not be accurate, to say that pythons were introduced to the wild by irresponsible pet owners abandoning their snakes when they became too large or too expensive for them to keep. Undoubtedly, some snakes were abandoned in this way, but most biologists don’t believe a breeding population is likely from this source, or this source alone. More likely, it was a hurricane that damaged a warehouse where incoming snakes destined for the pet trade were housed. Regardless, the python is now established in the everglades.

No longer legal to import to the United States, or to transport between state lines, the Burmese python remains a popular pet. A very strong constrictor, the python of course is not venomous, but it is an extremely efficient ambush hunter that will feed on a very large variety of prey including mammals as large as full-grown deer, bobcats, and raccoons. It is also a ferocious predator of birds, particularly semi-aquatic species. Other snakes and even alligator and crocodiles are on its menu. Crocodiles, with essentially the same dietary preferences, aren’t just potential prey, they are competitors for what biologists are calling an alarmingly distressed population of small mammal food sources.

With mature pythons routinely reaching 9-feet long and many exceeding 16-feet with a few specimens discovered beyond 18-feet in length, these snakes are voracious eaters. They also reach maturity relatively quickly and can produce as many as 100 (50 typical) eggs in a breeding season. Even using the lower range estimates of the population size and considering that the larger snakes are very large, it may seem that they would be extremely easy to find.

Unfortunately, this is not at all true. The python is well adapted to the environment and can be virtually invisible when resting in brush. As an ambush predator, it doesn’t need to be as mobile as some other species, making it very difficult to hunt. Throw in the fact that vast areas of the Florida Everglades are nearly inaccessible to humans and it quickly becomes obvious that events such as the Python Challenge will never seriously impact the species in its adopted habitat.

The 2016 Python Challenge, scheduled for Jan. 16 through Feb. 14 isn’t primarily an attempt to eradicate the snake. Rather, organizers say it is a public awareness event to highlight the problem of invasive species in the state. The Everglades is a highly diverse, but severely stressed ecosystem with a number of endangered, threatened, and rare species that biologists fear could easily be wiped out by the invasive snakes. Other than man, the only threat to a full-grown Burmese python is an even larger alligator. Juvenile pythons are preyed upon by raccoons, king snakes (a native snake), and both alligators and crocodiles. However, raccoons are rapidly becoming less of a threat to the young snakes as the adult python population has essentially brought the raccoon, rabbit, rat, and other small mammal populations to near zero in some areas.

Although certainly capable of preying on humans, pythons do not hunt people. According to Florida wildlife sources, humans are much more likely to be injured or killed through interactions with the snakes while driving. Naturally, the creatures will protect themselves if they feel threatened. Fortunately, the snake is not easily threatened. They have heat-sensing pits near their jaws and are highly accurate and brutal with a strike. Despite lacking the obvious fangs of a venomous snake, pythons do have an impressive set of sharp, highly angled teeth within their massive jaws.

Immediately after a strike, the snake coils with amazing speed around its stunned prey as the jaws and teeth prevent any option for escape. For most prey, the constriction is more than sufficient to break bones and raise an animal’s blood pressure high enough to cause massive internal bleeding. Only the hardiest prey is likely to live long enough to actually be suffocated.

The Burmese python is highly efficient at processing a kill. Even highly armored adult crocodiles are quickly rendered by the powerful stomach acids. In as little as three days, an entire crocodile, including bones, can be broken down and moved through to the intestinal track.

With a habitat that makes it easy for the snake to hide from human hunters, a very wide diet, few predators, and high fertility and quick maturity, there aren’t a lot of options for biologists tasked with solving the python problem in Florida. Most experts agree that the only solution with real potential to actually eradicate the species from the wild is to release tailored disease into the population. This, of course, is a radical, controversial, and dangerous option. The Everglades is home to a wide variety of creatures and many reptilian species that could potentially be harmed by any potential effort along these lines. A Burmese python-specific biological weapon does not yet exist.

Currently, hunts such as the Python Challenge and some efforts to learn more about how and where the snakes are breeding and nesting are the only tools biologists have. It was only in 2014 that the first active (containing eggs) nest was discovered. Biologists are tracking some large females, discovering that the males tend to be attracted to them in pretty significant numbers. Possibly, discovering the mechanisms behind this attraction can lead to the creation of a lure, or a method of disrupting the mating cycle.

 

For more information on the 2016 Python Challenge, please visit the Python Challenge website.

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