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Florida, Home of the Burmese Python?

Naveen Sultan about 5 months ago

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Burmese python in the Everglades


photo by Flickr/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region

Florida, Home of the Burmese Python?

By Amy Beeman

If Florida were a mother, she’d be one of those overly permissive ones. The kind who doesn’t set curfews or bedtimes, who lets her son have his girlfriend is his room with the door closed. Mama Florida wouldn’t discipline her kids much. She’s warm, tolerant and inviting. She makes life easy. She’d take in all manner of strays, even to the detriment of her own well-being.

If Burmese pythons were her kids, they’d be the freeloading kind - laying around a lot, not a care in the world, getting up occasionally to raid the ‘fridge. Worst of all, one day she’d realize she’s stuck with them. They're never leaving. And they're seriously busting her hustle.

Such is the metaphorical situation of the true story of the invasion of The Florida Everglades by Burmese pythons.

Since about the late nineties or early aughts, Florida wildlife officials have reported a surge of Burmese pythons making their homes in the South Florida wetlands. The snakes are believed to have found their new sweet spot because pet owners released the unwanted pets into the wild, and others are believed to have found their way to the Everglades after escaping from pet shops or snake farms when hurricane Andrew raged through South Florida back in 1992.

Today, estimates of their numbers vary, but range in the tens of thousands to about 100,000. These non-native snakes pose a huge problem for Florida’s native species, a.k.a python food. Raccoons’, opossums’ and bobcats’ numbers have dwindled by 99 percent, and marsh rabbits and foxes are virtually wiped out. Even alligators are on the menu, as they are finding themselves competing to stay at top of the food chain.

These Pythons, native to Southern and Southeast Asia, are not only eating our native creatures like pac man pellets, they're also shrugging their non-existent shoulders at our attempts to irradicate them.

Last year the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held a Python Challenge, inviting professional and amateur snake hunters to come get as many as they could. According to a report in the Washington Post, 1,500 hunters set out to catch as many pythons as they could over the course of four weeks. They only caught 68, which were killed and used for study. The snakes are hard to find, it seems.

Their elusiveness, coupled with a lack of budget are two reasons the FWCC is throwing in the towel on trying to get rid of them.

Effects on the ecosystem notwithstanding, this is how the world works now. Living beings migrate, whether by choice, force or happenstance. We have a parade of Northerners, Mid-Westerners, Latinos, and Caribbean Islanders coming regularly. Florida is a favorite for eccentrics, felons and sexual predators. Why wouldn’t animals like it here too? The climate is great and food is abundant. They’re just opportunists, trying to survive. Most of the non-indigenous species that are currently in Florida were born here at this point, and there isn’t much we can do to get rid of all of them. Of course that doesn’t mean these animals aren’t worrisome to the balance of our unique environment.

As for our own bodily well-being, Burmese pythons are somewhat docile and not much of a threat to full-grown humans, though it would be wise not to test that if given the chance. Certainly they could dominate us.

Since they really like the tropics, they’re bound to stay pretty far south, meaning many Floridians likely won’t encounter one when out on a nature walk, though they have been found in the upper keys, Marco Island, and Big Cypress, and even some more populated areas up to Central Florida. They are listed as a threatened species, largely because back in Asia they are hunted for their skins and for use in local medicines. (Looks like those guys are better python hunters than us.) These non-venomous serpents kill by constricting and asphyxiating, then swallow their prey whole. They live for 20-25 years, usually grow to 16-23 feet, and can weigh up to 200 pounds. They are known to swim underwater for as long as 30 minutes. Younger, smaller pythons can climb trees, but the larger ones are generally found on the ground.

And for their final act, scientists only recently discovered that Burmese pythons have amazing homing skills. To the tune of, they can find their way to where they were captured within about three miles from up to 20 miles away, and they travel back in a relatively direct route. Researchers aren’t positive about how they can do this, but it’s a pretty cool trick.

Even as Mama Florida slowly accepts what she cannot change, freeloading Burmese pythons invite their aggressive cousins over. Though currently smaller in numbers, for now, The African Rock Pythons are making their home in South Florida too. Similar to Burmese Pythons, only bigger and meaner. One killed a 60-pound dog in its backyard near Miami last fall, and another escaped from a Canadian pet shop and killed two young boys sleeping in an adjacent apartment. These jokers are scary. Both snakes are considered threats to pets and small children, though the burmese variety is considered less likely to attack a human.

Experts say if you see one of these giant snakes, avoid it. No kidding.

For those of us not currently living in South Florida, that may be easy enough. Though, with projected sea-level rise in the coming decades, including the likelihood of the flooding of the Florida Everglades, we may see these unwelcome predators being pushed into more northern and populated areas. Of course that’s a whole other blog post. For now, we can only wait and watch, and be very mindful next time we’re at a rest stop along Alligator Alley...

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