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

    Just let them loose in Washington DC and they can eat the politicians.

    January 31, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kay SS

      I think that is quite possibly the best suggestion I have read on this thread...

      January 31, 2012 at 10:11 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Key Shade

    I know this won't be popular among animal lovers and I am one myself but we are trying to protect native species that are being wiped out. If they are endangered in their native land because they are hunted for their meat and skin and we are overpopulated by a species that shouldn't be here the logical thing should be to open up hunting of them in Florida and then export the meat and skins to the native area where there is a demand. I'm not sure if there would be laws in their native land about eating them if the meat is from elsewhere. I assume the meat is for eating.

    January 31, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. dginkc

    Turn loose packs of pit bulls and let the chips fall where they may.

    January 31, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • WHAT?

      Gators like dogs.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
  4. infonomics

    Turn the rednecks loose on the everglades and all America will be wearing snake-skin boots by Monday morning.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • pedro

      You jest, but that is seriously the answer. 365 day a year open season on pythons – they'll be gone within 3 years.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Emigdio Alvarez

      i could go for some snakeskin belt/boots.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • WHAT?

      why not?

      January 31, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Yep, need to call open season on these suckers. Problem is they are hard to hunt down in the wild.

      January 31, 2012 at 11:05 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Anonymous

    Make a ban against owning these types of python in Florida. Create a fine if people are caught importing, or owning. Then go around and kill those suckers on the loose.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • w.s.

      If you cannot get people to stop buying these snakes and then irresponsibly releasing them there you make ownership of them against the law. As of now. If you have to; tag any that are in ownership now. Tags or chips that cannot be removed. Then if you find those snakes at a later date in the Everglades the owners face consequences. If that does not seem feasible then sadly those may have to be confiscated too. Those and the ones now in the Everglades need to be trapped and either transferred to zoos around the country and if that is not possible humanly euthanized. It is sad; but unfortunately all necessary. The snakes pay the price for their owners irresponsibility. I know it is unlikely humans will be harmed by the free snakes in the Everglades but somewhere down the line if this continues the risks are going to get worse. Also; if it can be done in anyway; anyone now owning them should have them sterlized if possible or make it clear mating is banned. Big job.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • nepawoods

      Feral house cats, also an invasive pet species, are a greater problem in the Everglades than pythons. Should we make those illegal too?

      January 31, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Report abuse |
  6. joe

    Let the snake hunters from Asia who value their skin come over and take care of it.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jokersmoker

    A lot of these posts would be funnier if people know what the "Reply" button was for....

    January 31, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Report abuse |
  8. MagnuM

    The pythons are not responsible for wreaking havoc on the ecosystem, humans are. We're very good at throwing off the balance of a planet that can get by totally fine without us (probably better off without us actually!).

    The pythons don't belong there. They were brought over by us, abandoned by their owners, and are now only eating to survive.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
  9. john cougar mellencamp

    BTW, when HURRICANE Andrew came supposedly a farm raising them for sale as pets was destroyed and breeding pairs of these snakes got loose. supposedly

    January 31, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jessica

      I'm glad this was mentioned. I just recently watched a show on tv and it mentioned the same thing.

      January 31, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Toxic Zebra

    If Burmese pythons can live as long as 30 years and a female lays an average of 35 eggs per year... Need to open up hunting, trapping, etc., asap before all the mammals are gone – as soon as one or two kids get eaten they'll get motivated

    January 31, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • That guy

      That is a very true statement. These creatures are already wondering into neighborhoods in Florida. I'll give it 6 months and we'll be reading a sad story about a kid and snake.. Then actions will be taken. Send some of those swamp guys from the new Orleans down to Florida and they'll fix this in 3 months..

      January 31, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Gord

    These brave scientists will collect big monster paychecks while sitting studying the problem of invasive pythons will these brave men do anything the stop the spread not a chance as then the paychecks stop dead in their tracks faster than a freezing cold winter to a python. Yup I would love to get a job like this getting paid $100,000.00 year just to sit and watch record a few details now and then . Bend normal scientific facts to justify the findings that I want to see not needing the truth as that just gets in the way of some more big grant checks. Would not want to jeopardize that in any way. And we all know the housecat has never killed any wildlife.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
  12. smartone

    this is really O.J's Fault

    January 31, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Dr Tom

    Declare snake meat a delecacy and start serving it in fancy restaurants (are there any in FL)?

    January 31, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
  14. rebiii

    If there is a market for snakeskin, then that is the answer. People will hunt them if they can make money. Their has to be some control, though. The problem is, if you just turn the rednecks loose to hunt snakes, you will have a lot of unscrupulous people who will also harvest other wildlife. And their aren't enough rangers to patrol everywhere. I think it's worth the risk, though. It is a shame that the Everglades might turn into a snake farm.

    January 31, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Report abuse |
  15. bright idea

    I feel a reality show coming on. Python Wars? Everglades People?

    January 31, 2012 at 10:42 pm | Report abuse |
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