Burmese Pythons in the Everglades

1 January 2017

They followed their ears to a duel between an alligator and a huge Burmese Python. The alligator clamped his jaws around the snake. The snake wrapped its body around the alligator. The tourists wasted no time in whipping out their camera phones or video cameras, and within days the video was viral. Millions were enthralled by the odd match-up, but to scientists, it was a sign of what could be a very serious problem. The fight between an American alligator and a Burmese Python is unusual, and pretty intriguing, because the Burmese Python is not native to Florida.

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In fact, people barely noticed they were there until the early 1990s. The accidental introduction of an invasive species to an ecosystem can be absolutely devastating. They can wipe out other species, destroy habitats, and throw the whole system out of whack. We’ve seen it before. The introduction of the Brown treesnake to Guam, for example, caused major ecological and socioeconomic problems since its introduction to Guam shortly after World War II. The tree snakes clearly thrived in the environment of Guam over that of Australia; Specimens from Guam were significantly larger, Dobson 2 nd reproduced year round, as compared to those found living in Australia, which reproduce seasonally. As the snakes thrived in a new home, the island could not quite handle them as their native lands could. The brown treesnake caused a severe decline in native forest bird species, the loss of two lizard species, and declines in the Marianna fruit bat. It is now recognized as a public health threat, as well as a substantial drain on Guam’s economy. What has happened to Guam at the hand of a foreign, invasive species which should never have been introduced could easily happen to Florida too.

If we allow the Burmese Python to take over and deplete the diverse everglades, there is no telling what could be the long term effect. Like the Brown Treesnake to Guam, the Burmese Python survives better in the Everglades than its own natural environment. In Southeast Asia, the pythons may be prey to jackals, monitor lizards, parasites, and diseases. “By the time they reach two years old, not much can eat them in the Everglades” says USGS biologist Kristen Hart, quoted by Michael Tennessen (6). These animals are large: up to 20 feet long, and 200 pounds heavy.

They are sneaky: they’re often underground, in trees, underwater, or just blending into their surroundings with their brown and green-ish markings. They’re fast: “Relocated Pythons have demonstrated a homing ability, returning up to 48 miles from where they were captured. ” (Tennessen, 5) Most native species of the Everglades don’t stand a chance against these monsters. Some experts estimate that there are tens of thousands of Burmese Pythons living free in Florida today. Some eighteen hundred specimens have been removed and recorded in and around the Everglades since 2005.

Their numbers have risen dramatically. Two Burmese Dobson 3 Pythons were captured in the Everglades in 2000. In 2008, the number captured hit 343 (Tennesen, 3). Long ago, water from the Kissimmee River was free to flow to Lake Okeechobee and southward, over the lowlands of Biscayne Bay, the Ten Thousand Islands, and Florida Bay. It was a shallow layer of water moving slowly across nearly 11,000 square miles. It created the swamps, sloughs, ponds, marshes and forests which now make up the remaining wilderness of southern Florida.

Many of those species are native, but many have been introduced to the environment, usually as stowaways on other imports, or pets that have been released. The Burmese Python is one of the most invasive of these non-native species. The snakes originate from Southeast Asia, so they thrive in Florida’s similar environment. The Everglades became sort of a paradise to the pythons, since their introduction in the early 1990’s. A female Burmese Python will lay up to 207 eggs at once. Inside her nest, she will coil her body around the eggs to maintain a temperature of about ninety degrees Fahrenheit.

Incubation takes around two months. The python has only just recently been observed engaging in shivering thermo genesis for the first time outside of captivity. This is the production of body heat through muscle contractions. The mother snake does this to raise the temperature of her nest and eggs- the warmer the incubation, the quicker they will hatch, and slither free throughout the forest, carrying on its destructive path. With this sort of reproduction, it’s no wonder they’re so easily taking over the Everglades.

Dobson 4 One of the first big releases of the Burmese Python in Florida took place in 1992. Hurricane Andrew, a category 5 hurricane, took down a large snake importer’s warehouse, as well as causing many billions of dollars of damage. Each year, Miami receives 12,000 exotic pet shipments, many of which are the Burmese Python. A person who takes in a 20-inch baby python might be understandably surprised when it becomes a 12-foot, 200 pound beast within a couple years, and many will end up releasing it into the wild.

Most likely they are unaware that the reptile is about to wreak havoc on the ecosystem, gobbling native small to medium-sized species of all kinds, if they are unlucky enough to fall into its path. A Burmese Python will eat anything from birds and rodents to bobcats and deer- it will even swallow one of Florida’s iconic American Alligators like the one the tourists captured. Scientists who are worried about conservation of The Everglade’s native species have been recording numbers of medium-sized animal sightings and comparing them to numbers taken during 1996 and 1997.

The recordings for most species were down by close to 99 percent! Obviously there are other factors that have surely had an effect on the animals, like climate change, pollution, hurricanes, and whatever else, but there is a pretty definite link between the time of introduction of the Bermuda Python to wild Florida, and the sharp decrease in sightings of native species. The solution for such an issue is a tricky debate. How do you get rid of such a large population entirely? It may not seem especially “eco-friendly” or humane to run around capturing and killing as many Burmese Pythons as we can get our hands on, but neither is

Dobson 5 allowing these creatures that humans are responsible for bringing to Southern Florida, deplete the natural ecosystem and force native species into endangerment or extinction. So far nobody has thought up a good alternative, and permits to catch/kill Burmese Pythons found in and around the Everglades are now distributed. In 2003, the Task Force established an interagency team (FIATT) that will focus its efforts on non-native species. Their goal is to figure out how to assess and control the numbers of these threatening species (National Resource Council, 53).

The largest subtropical wilderness here in the United States has also been designated as a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, and Wetland of International Importance. It is naturally home to a wide spectrum of species, some which cannot even be found anywhere else. Needless to say, the preservation of this landmark is hugely important. Besides the Pythons there are Nile Monitor Lizards, African Sacred Ibis, Old World Climbing Ferns, and god knows what else threatening a fragile ecosystem.

There is no quick or easy way of stopping the Burmese Python from destroying the Everglades. We will have to work tirelessly and with dedication, because this problem will not take care of itself. One by one, each Burmese python will have to be captured and dealt with by relocation, or extermination. In all of my research, I found no alternative solution proposed, besides killing off most of the snakes. Maybe, more humanely, we could arrange some sort of python sanctuary in which Burmese Pythons are captured, sterilized, and cared for until their natural deaths.

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