Pythons wiping out mammals in Everglades, researchers say
A Burmese python in the Everglades swallowed a 76-pound deer last year.
January 31st, 2012
09:34 AM ET

Pythons wiping out mammals in Everglades, researchers say

Burmese pythons have eaten so many small mammals in Everglades National Park that populations of rabbits and foxes have disappeared and numbers of raccoons, opossums and bobcats have dropped as much as 99%, according to a report released Tuesday by researchers at Virginia Tech University, Davidson College and the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Pythons are wreaking havoc on one of America’s most beautiful, treasured, and naturally bountiful ecosystems,” said U.S. Geological Survey Director Marci McNutt in a statement.

The massive nonnative snakes have become an established species in the park in the past 11 years, after snakes that were once pets were released into the wild, according to the researchers. Park spokeswoman Linda Friar said earlier this month that there are tens of thousands of the snakes in the park.

In the remote southernmost regions of the 1.5 million-acre national park, researchers could find no marsh or cottontail rabbits or foxes. In those same areas, the raccoon population has declined 99.3%, the opossum population 98.9%, and the bobcat population 87.5%, the researchers reported.

Those animals are often found in the stomachs of Burmese pythons captured in the Everglades, the researchers said.

“The magnitude of these declines underscores the apparent incredible density of pythons in Everglades National Park,” said lead author Michael Dorcas, a biology professor at Davidson College in North Carolina.

To measure the population declines, researchers traveled more than 39,000 miles at night along roads in the park between 2003 and 2011, counting both live animals and road kills. Their data were compared to similar counts made along the same roads in 1996 and 1997, before the Burmese pythons had become an established species in the park.

In northern areas of the park, where python populations have not become established, the researchers found similar mammal numbers between their recent and older surveys. But in the area where the pythons have recently become established, the researches reported a noticeable decline in mammal numbers. They called for action before the pythons wipe out mammals in the entire park.

“Right now, the only hope to halt further python invasion into new areas is swift, decisive, and deliberate human action,” McNutt said.

Burmese pythons are native to southeast Asia, their range extending from southern China to the Malay Archipelago, according to the National Zoo. The snakes reach breeding age in four to five years and a female lays an average of 35 eggs during the spring breeding season, though one snake may lay up to 100. Burmese pythons can live as long as 30 years.

In their native range, the snakes are considered threatened and are hunted by humans for their meat and skins, according to the National Zoo.

They may grow up to 22 feet long but average about 16 feet. The snakes can swallow whole animals four or five times the size of their head. In the Everglades, the pythons have been found to eat deer and even alligators.

While the researchers are concerned about the fate of the raccoons and the opossums, they say they may not even be able to measure the snakes' effect on more elusive species.

“Such severe declines in easily seen mammals bode poorly for the many species of conservation concern that are more difficult to sample but that may also be vulnerable to python predation,” Dorcas said in a statement.

The researchers compared the proliferation of pythons in Florida to that of the brown tree snake on the Pacific island of Guam, where native species have disappeared since the introduction of the snakes. But they said it's happening faster in Florida.

“It took 30 years for the brown tree snake to be implicated in the nearly complete disappearance of mammals and birds on Guam; it has apparently taken only 11 years since pythons were recognized as being established in the Everglades for researchers to implicate pythons in the same kind of severe mammal declines,” U.S. Geological Survey scientist Robert Reed said in the report.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service instituted a ban on the importation of the Burmese python and three other nonnative constrictor snakes - the yellow anaconda and northern and southern African pythons.

But the researchers say they'll still need to do more.

“This severe decline in mammals is of significant concern to the overall health of the park’s large and complex ecosystem,” Everglades National Park Superintendent Dan Kimball said in a statement. “We will continue to enhance our efforts to control and manage the non-native python and to better understand the impacts on the park.”

The latest research was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Hunting snakes in Florida

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Filed under: Animals • Florida • Snakes
soundoff (456 Responses)
  1. phil moshell

    Let's see, they are endangered in Burma, so let's import some Burmese snake trappers ! Looks like they did a good job on them at home!

    February 1, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • mark o. worrell

      Put a $50 or $100 bounty on pythons and watch mankind eradicate them from the Glades in a quick year or two, and then watch all the other wildlife return.

      Problem solved, if we really want to solve it.

      February 7, 2012 at 9:22 am | Report abuse |
  2. Smellie

    oh well, when the snakes have eaten all the available mammals, maybe they'll have no choice but to devour one another, or starve. Zero chance human beings will take adequate steps to remedy the situation.

    February 1, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jinx

    While the overall article has points, the specific data in the article is VERY misleading. A majority of the pythons now in the Everglades got there as a direct result of Hurricane Andrew. An import warehouse took damage, and the animals in it escaped. While a very few of the animals in the Everglades may be ESCAPED pets, responsible pet owners would NEVER release a non native animal into the wild!!

    There is a photo of a very dead python found with a dead alligator inside it – HOWEVER, the gator had been shot and was probably already dead when the python ate it! Pythons are known to scavenge as well as kill.

    Pythons have NOT been imported to the US since just after Hurricane Andrew. Most of the pet pythons in the US today are the result of CAPTIVE BREEDING. The ban spoken of in this article is a ban on sales of captive bred pythons – putting hundreds of people out of work.

    I DO agree that the pythons need to be captured and disposed of, either by killing the very very large ones, and releasing to responsible owners for the smaller ones. Hunt them for their skin and meat, that is a GREAT idea! I think they need to step up their game and catch a LOT more, and quickly. They've had far more than a decade to address this problem, and now to legislate pet ownership because of their negligence in handling the problem is NOT a good answer!

    Please refer to this article for more:

    February 2, 2012 at 12:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Alexis

      Thanks for the extra info...tres interesting...

      February 2, 2012 at 1:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Al2002

      That import warehouse probably had these animals to meet the demand of people that want them as pets. The problem in the Everglades is a direct result of the of this demand and the legality and availability of these animals exacerbates it very significantly. Guess who ultimately pays for the problem of dealing with these animals? That would be the taxpayer. We don't need another expensive program that we need to hire more personnel for in order to manage a problem indefinitely. This issue can be resolved much more easily: make the availability of these animals off limits to people who want to use them at home for their own recreation. Burmese pythons (like bears, big cats, and the like) are not pets and require a great deal of specialized knowledge and skills to take care of properly. Beyond viable conservation efforts and scientific/scholarly efforts, they should not be allowed in just anyone's captivity.

      February 2, 2012 at 8:39 am | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      To say that the problem was not caused by the python pet industry but rather by a hurricane because it destroyed a python farm and released the snakes into the wild is disingenuous. The farm was a part of the pet industry. The truth is that the problem is a direct result of the pet industry, whether imported or bred in captivity. The problem is not the source but the fact that these snakes get out into an ecosphere unprepared for them, whether through unwanted pet release or through natural disasters breaking their enclosures. We see this same problem with other non-native species all across the US. Banning the importation and sale of these snakes was a good first step. Banning the ownership and breeding of them by individuals is the next needed step.

      February 7, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chuck

      Banning people from having specific pets simply doesn't work. Neither does banning their import once an invasion has been established. The problem nationally with feral dogs and cats is exponentially worse than any damage any reptile does – are we going to ban people from having cats and dogs? It's sensational to write about this very real problem, but until someone has the will to pay to solve it, all we'll see is no progress and pointless legislation.

      February 24, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  4. tbaby

    Sounds to me like the pythons to the animals of the Everglades are like humans to ALL animals-DEADLY! At least it's for food to them. We like MONEY and the prestige of hanging them on our walls and clubs.

    February 2, 2012 at 1:32 am | Report abuse |
    • ScottH

      As a human that vilifies humans, you are within your rights to get rid of yourself. Just saying. We can call it "Environmental Hari-Kari." Commence...

      February 2, 2012 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
    • DJCowboy

      I guess that's what happens when we're at the top of the food chain, speaking of which I think I want some Burmese Python boots and I wonder what their meat tastes like...

      February 2, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • mr focus

      Since the pythons are directly a human created problem. In a word, yes. Look at all the weirdos fighting the python ban.

      February 6, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
  5. mike k.

    Steamed python, broiled python, python soup, python stew, python n' potatoes, python burger, python sandwich...

    February 2, 2012 at 6:22 am | Report abuse |
  6. DerekJeremy

    I want to to make an army of alligators who knows all the secrets of Kungfu to defeat all the pythons. – Derek
    Let the birds guide the unmanned drones to kill all the pythons! – Jeremy

    February 2, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Kat Deputy

    Do your research. The first ones escaped from a snake farm during Hurricane Andrew. I wish you reporters would do your jobs and get the whole story before you throw out your sound bites. There is a task force dedicated to bringing in as many pythons as they can. It has been on going since hurricane Andrew.

    February 7, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • R Bolton

      Good point about the hurricane Kat, but as for the task force, well let's just say it's extremely obvious they are not good at their job. Florida residents must revolt!!, before kids are eaten off school buses. This snake problem is disgusting!!

      February 12, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Duward Underwood

      You MAY be correct Kay. But if a fire burns you and your family to death, it really does not matter if they catch the arsonist to you. Just to the ones who are still alive. It does not matter NOW what happened or who did what. I was born and raised in the south. (Georgia) All it would take is for the state to offer a $1,000 bounty for snakes over 12 feet, $500 for ones over 8 feet and $100 for any under 8 feet and presto problem solved. Let the state wildlife stay out of it, do not requie a hunting permit or license and just turn them "Good ol boys" loose and you will see your problem solved in less time that it takes to grow another big one. And by the way, tell PETA to stay out of Florida.

      February 24, 2012 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
  8. R Bolton

    It is very important to note that burmese pythons are not picky eaters. They will happily eat your children! As they devour all the animals in their part of the park, they WILL travel to seek food. They will travel eventually out of the park. They will swallow fisherman fishing innocently on piers. They will eat people in parking lots. I wish Florida's government would try to be a little bit more responsible. The snakes are not native to the area and there is NO need for their existence! In fact, as a Florida resident, I can tell you there are plenty of snakes w/out them! All you gotta do is put a $50 bounty on them, and every hunter in Florida will be on it and the situation resolved! Florida should not wait until the snakes have eaten ALL signs of life and have to travel to Georgia for food.

    February 12, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Duward Underwood

      I promise you that the guys in Georgia will not wait on some state buricrat to find a way to solve their problem. The only thing that will stop them is some stupid official in the DNR to try and stop them. That is a lot of our problems now. We have to many busy bodies that have nothing to do but try to harrass decent law abiding citizens. Don't get me wrong. They should be jumping on the obvious law breakers. But this problem will engulf the whole south unless someone has the courage to let our people take care of it without their infernal interference.

      February 25, 2012 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
  9. Nonya Effin Business

    I say we put a bounty on all the idiots who think they need a snake for a pet.

    February 27, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  10. robjh1

    Do we really need snakes?

    June 2, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  11. John Doe

    Lets see..Lets Hire Gordon Ramsey to create a deleicious Burmese Python stew and provide the recipe for free across florida. The problem will be solved in few weeks.

    August 14, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
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