A new predator has officially established itself in the Florida Everglades, the Burmese python. Pythons are considered an invasive species, which is a plant or animal that is not native to a specific location, has a tendency to spread and is believed to cause damage to the environment. Burmese pythons are native to Southeast Asia, but accidental and deliberate release of snakes kept as pets in Florida have allowed them to find a new home in the south Florida marsh. In 2000, reports declared that the snakes had officially established a breeding population in the Everglades, and today they are ubiquitous in the same area.
With the potential to grow to 23 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds, this is no ordinary snake. Females can lay up to 100 eggs at a time, which only need to incubate for 2 to 3 months before hatching. This prolific predator has become such a pest that over 2,000 pythons have been removed from the park and surrounding areas since 2002 and this represents a small fraction of the total population. Volunteer and bounty hunting programs have failed to keep the serpents in check.
When invasive species invade, they can alter habitat structure and compete with other animals or plants for resources. In severe cases, invasive species can reduce or extirpate other species.
Unfortunately, these snakes are “notoriously hard to find and very secretive,” says Michael Dorcas, a professor of biology at Davidson College. “Because much of South Florida is a vast wilderness, the possibility of exterminating or even suppressing them doesn’t seem promising. It’s an ecological mess, and exactly what’s going to happen down the road remains to be seen.”
Large Burmese pythons found in the Everglades are known to prey on a wide variety of native wildlife, including rodents, raccoons, rabbits and deer fawns. There have even been reports of them attempting to eat full grown alligators. Of particular concern is their predation of protected species, like the American alligator, American Wood Stork, and the Key Largo wood rat.
Data from a 2011 study revealed that in areas where pythons have been established longest, mammal populations appear to be severely reduced. Researchers documented a 99.3% decrease in the frequency of raccoon observations, decreases of 98.9% and 87.5% for opossum and bobcat observations, respectively, and failed to detect any rabbits. The loss of these mammals is devastating not only to those populations, but to all the animals that rely on them. It is possible that the recorded decline in bobcats, foxes, coyotes and panthers is linked to the disappearance of their prey.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), in partnership with many organizations such as the National Park Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and county governments, have spent more than $6 million since 2005 finding and applying solutions to the growing problem of Burmese pythons and other large invasive constrictor snakes in Florida. Additionally the FWS has spent an average of about $720,000 annually on efforts to combat the spread of all invasive species throughout Florida and the rest of the United States. Efforts include capture and removal, public education and awareness as well as spatial ecology and movement studies and training dogs to find nonnative constrictor snakes.
Invasive species, such as the python, have the potential to devastate the diverse fauna of the Everglades ecosystem if the population cannot be reduced or eliminated. State organizations and governments are working together to develop the most effective invasive species management strategies before irreparable damage occurs.