02 May 2014

Python Problem: Invasive Snakes Wreak Havoc in the Everglades


 

 

 
 

 
 
 
 
 

 
Last week Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission officials killed one of the largest Burmese pythons ever taken from the Everglades. The monster serpent measured almost 16 feet in length and weighed an incredible 215 pounds. Officials discovered a large portion of that weight inside the snake when they cut it open to discover a fully intact 76-pound deer in its stomach.
 
The photos illustrate an ever-growing invasive snake problem in Florida. Pythons and anacondas are top-line predators and many experts worry that they will (or already have) thrown the fragile Everglades ecosystem out of whack. We take a closer look at how these big snakes operate and the problems they pose for Florida.
 
Burmese pythons are ambush predators and quite capable of subduing large prey thanks to their needle-sharp, backward-pointing teeth and enough coiled strength to constrict a deer-sized animal into asphyxiation.  They swallow their food whole. Larger prey is easily accommodated thanks to the ability of the snake to unhinge its jaw.  Prey can take weeks, if not months, to fully digest.
 
Burmese pythons are an invasive species that have overrun some areas of Florida. They have no natural predators and the Florida swamps are an ideal habitat for them with plenty of prey.  Pythons can be hunted in Florida by anyone on private land. A license is not required. Florida residents with a license can hunt pythons on private and public land.  Officials killed this one with a shotgun.
 
Thanks to accidental (they escaped from a collector or breeder) and intentional releases (they got too big for their owner), Florida now has more non-native species of snake than any other state. Boa constrictor, green anaconda, and seven species of python have been found in the wilds of the Sunshine State.
 

 

 
Unfortunately this latest incident is only one of many documented cases of big invasive snakes taking down natural wildlife, as the following photos show.
 
But just how many exotic snakes are in Florida is a matter of speculation.  Estimates run from 5,000 to over 150,000. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Exotic Species Coordinator Scott Hardin says the state really doesn't know how many snakes there are. 
"We'd rather spend our resources on getting rid of them rather than counting them," Hardin says.  "It would almost be impossible to count them.  We thought we lost a lot of them in 2010's freeze but it looks like we didn't lose as many as we thought.  Or hoped to.  I'd be willing to say that the number is in the thousands though."
 
Regardless of numbers, the snakes that are in Florida are causing environmental damage. They prey on deer, small mammals, amphibians, other reptiles, birds and even pets.  In fact, they'll eat pretty much anything they can get their unhinged jaws around.  
 

 
But sometimes, pythons bite off a little more than they can digest. This 13-foot Burmese python made headlines in 2005 when it burst after swallowing a 6-foot alligator.
 
 

 
Mythology, pop culture, and the Internet are ripe with stories of snakes swallowing humans, but to date no actual proof has been presented.  Pictures such as this (discredited several times) only fuel stories of human death by serpentine. Hoaxers claimed that the bulge inside this snake was a human.
 
There is still much to learn about Florida's invasive snake problem and it's clear that the big constrictors are not going away anytime soon. We can only hope that game officials and hunters can work together to curb the invasion.

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