State Under Attack From Reptile Predator

Burmese Python is a top predator in Florida

Snakes and the Everglades may seem to go together like bread and butter.  But unfortunately when the bread is a 15 foot Burmese python and the butter is Florida’s delicate Everglades ecosystem, the result is a recipe for disaster.

Since being unleashed on south Florida in the late 1990s, the invasive reptiles have wreaked havoc throughout south Florida and may be poised to head north.  Many native species are easy targets for the pythons since they are an unfamiliar sight.  As a result, raccoon and possum populations in python infested areas are down 99 percent.  White-tailed deer do not fare much better, down 94 percent.

Man And Nature At Fault

The onslaught is the result of the accidental and deliberate release of pet pythons during the 1980s. The snakes are native to Southeast Asia and found the tropical Florida environs to their liking. They rank among the top six largest snakes in the world and can reach lengths of 20 feet. Adding to the problem is their longevity; they can live up to 25 years.  Although there was a small population of the exotic pythons in south Florida since about 1980, their numbers soared in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew cut a swath of destruction across the Florida peninsula and inadvertently released hundreds of snakes into the wild.  By the mid 1990s, they had established a stable breeding population in Florida and began to take a toll on the unsuspecting locals.  Eventually the upper end of the food chain became an indirect victim of the pythons as well. Recently, park rangers based in Everglades National Park have noticed a dearth of bobcats, foxes, coyotes and panthers.  They attribute the decline to a lack of available food in the form of raccoons, rabbits and opossums.

Python In Florida Residential Neighborhood

Python in residential area

Expanding Range

While humans are generally not a staple of the python diet, the snakes’ rapidly increasing population and the resulting shrinking food base is cause for concern.  The hungry snakes have expanded their palate to include wild birds and fowl, as well as farm animals.  In addition, they are slowly encroaching on civilization and are known to have an affinity for cats and dogs.   The only known human fatality came in 2009 when an eight foot python escaped its enclosure and strangled a two year old.

As food becomes more and more scarce for the pythons, scientists believe their range will gradually expand throughout the southeastern United States, thereby making the Burmese python the most common apex predator in North America.

Pythons' range is expanding northward

Expanding Range

Solutions?

Solutions to the python dilemma have proven as evasive as the slithering reptiles themselves.  Several years ago The Nature Conservancy developed a volunteer program called the Python Patrol to be on the lookout for recently spotted snakes in the upper Florida Keys. Since then the program has widened to include the Everglades and boasts more than 200 “spotters”.  Since the snakes often warm themselves near roads, drivers for the postal service, UPS and FedEx are being utilized in the programs. Once spotted, the snakes are picked up by professional handlers.  A pilot program for specially trained dogs is also underway, but as of August, 2012, results have been inconclusive.

There has also been heated discussion regarding a bounty for the snakes but the only monetary incentive approved by the legislature allows hunters to sell snakes for the meat or skin, thus creating the “bounty”.  The licensing process is cumbersome as well, which further discourages hunters. The legislature did pass the Lacey Act, which prohibits  people from owning Burmese pythons as pets or transporting the snakes across state borders without a federal permit.

And researchers were encouraged by the August, 2012 record capture of a 17. 5 foot constrictor. The snake was pregnant with 87 eggs.  Scientists hope to gain insight into the specie’s reproductive patterns and potentially develop a sterilization program down the road.

Rangers and other volunteers make up the

Roadside python

Florida Is Ground Zero For Invasive Species

But for the moment, with python population estimates ranging into the hundreds of thousands, South Florida residents can do little more than lock the doors and windows.  Floridians are no strangers to invasive incursions. The state leads the nation with more than 140 documented non-native plant and animal species now residing in the sunshine state.  While the Burmese python is one of the biggest threats to the Florida ecosystem, other unwelcome denizens, such as the pesky lovebug, and the Brazilian pepper tree continue to alter the state’s fragile environmental balance.