In the last few weeks a very interesting animal has slithered it’s way into the public spotlight. Burmese pythons have been the topic of local news stories, public discussion and Florida Wildlife and Conservation Commission (FWC) management concerns. For those of us who deal with exotic species on a daily basis, we are aware of this very large snake. Burmese Pythons originate from Southeast Asia and can grow to lengths approaching twenty feet. They are formidable ambush predators similar in efficiency to the American Alligator.
What is the problem with a twenty-foot exotic snake released into a place where it does not normally occur? The big picture is far beyond the scope of my short newsletter article. For the purpose of casting some light on the effects of exotic species on Florida ecosystems I will focus on two ways the issue started.
Burmese pythons start as brightly colored snakes about 14 to 20 inches long. They can grow close 20 feet in five years. I can hear the gasps. Pythons were once sold in reptile stores throughout Florida at low cost to reptile aficionados. The problems start once pet owners become overwhelmed with a 15-foot, 100-pound snake and cannot care for them any more. A snake that size needs a room, not a cage, and can devour a 5-pound rabbit in one meal. Substantial cost is involved with keeping a Burmese Python. Due to this fact, in many cases, owners turned the snakes into the wild. Because of high demand, most reptile shops kept these snakes in stock. That leads us to a second scenario offered up by some officials. Large numbers of pythons from pet stores could have been release when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida and store cages were damaged. This would greatly increase the chances of a breeding population surviving in the Everglades. In either case, now, we have a problem.
Large Pythons eat birds, deer, raccoons, alligators, rats and mice and many other native Florida animals. Burmese pythons in the Everglades could be potentially catastrophic. There is evidence that Burmese pythons are nesting in the Everglades. Large snakes have very few predators. On top of it all females can give birth to over 40 baby snakes at a time. This could increase populations exponentially in just a few years and decimate wild animal populations. Numerous examples exist in Hawaii and Guam of how exotic species can alter habitats.
How do we know Burmese Pythons are increasing in numbers in the everglades? Everglades National Park records show the numbers of recovered pythons increasing from nearly zero in 2001 to 250 in 2007. Pythons can potentially disrupt the food chain if not regulated. Also, removing these animal will prove to be very difficult. The Everglades is roughly the size of Rhode Island and locating a python would be like finding a needle in a haystack. Earlier in January the FWC put on a python hunt to increase awareness about these snakes. Some criticism has mounted after only 69 pythons were recovered. It is still too early to cast judgment on actually how many exist in the glades, but more research needs to be done to ensure the safety of native wildlife and to avoid drastically changing natural Florida Habitats.
How do we solve the problem of exotic species? Florida has a large number of plants and animals that arrived here with the help of humans. It is our responsibility not to introduce non-native species. Education will be a key tool. More needs to be done by pet-store owners, Florida governmental agencies and citizens. Owning a pet is a huge responsibility, which takes research on the part of the owner to know how to properly care for a chosen animal. We put them there and it is our duty to remove them or eventually pay the consequences. Taking an attitude that they are already here now and we should let them be takes all accountability away from us as citizens. The problem will only get worse and we have evidence to prove it. Burmese pythons are not going away. They are here to stay. The future of this giant snake in the Everglades depends on how we approach the imminent population increase in native Florida habitats.
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National Park Service
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission