Unwelcome Glades neighbor: Burmese python

This snake stays busy stalking birds, others

When walking through the Florida Everglades, you might assume that any wildlife you encounter would be alligators.

Don’t be so sure. You are just as likely to see a Burmese python. These snakes are the most talked-about animal issue in the Everglades in recent years.

“Invasive Burmese pythons are particularly hazardous to native bird populations in North America,” said Carla Dove, ornithologist at the Smithsonian Feather Identification Lab, “because the birds didn’t evolve with this large reptile as a predator.”

Pythons have already made their mark on the Everglades, devastating wildlife along the way. But snake infestation is not new to South Florida; the region is the home to five of the most poisonous snake species in the world.

The Burmese python was first spotted in the Everglades in 1979. Its population quickly grew and is now in the thousands. Burmese pythons are one of the world’s largest snakes. Experts say that some weigh more than 200 pounds and are more than 20 feet long.

Many owners of Burmese pythons once had them as pets, but, when the snakes grew too big to house, a lot of those owners released them into the Everglades. This pattern occurred mainly in the 1980s, but it still occurs today. Burmese pythons have created issues for all wildlife in the Everglades, including birds — and even alligators.

“It is also a concern that the pythons will out-compete the endangered Eastern Indigo snake, the largest native snake in the Everglades,” said Rachael Johnson, a University of Miami student who interned with the Florida Everglades National Park staff. The Indigo can reach lengths of nine feet; a Burmese Python can grow to about 13 feet.

The Everglades provide a perfect place for Burmese pythons to prosper. The climate is ideal for hiding and breeding. Officials have estimated that 30,000 Burmese pythons make their home in the Everglades. They grow as if they are on steroids. With a life span of 30 years, pythons can cause serious damage.

“The python has adapted and reproduced in this area,” said Linda Friar, spokesperson for Everglades National Park. “This snake has the ability to compete with top predators. The Burmese python eats bobcats and even small alligators” she said.

There’s a lot being done to get rid of pythons.  Two years ago, former Gov. Charlie Crist approved a plan to capture and kill Burmese pythons that invaded the Everglades, but the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued only a certain number of permits to kill them.

Python trappers are volunteer experts who euthanize captured snakes. This effort has worked to a point. Many Burmese pythons were captured and killed, but most scientists say that simply hunting them isn’t the solution.

Florida is also requiring that, if you get the snake at a pet store, a chip has to be placed inside it that will identify you as the owner.

“The python cannot be hunted in the park,” Friar said. But groups are allowed to come in and capture or remove them. “The snakes are then killed or removed from preserve,” she said.

In the Florida Keys, the Nature Conservancy formed Python Patrol. That’s a group of utility workers, wildlife officials, park rangers and police who are trying to keep Burmese pythons from taking over the Florida Keys. They haven’t made it down to the Keys — yet.

“If we can keep them from spreading and breeding, then we’re ahead of the problem,” said Allison Higgins, who started Python Patrol. “We’re doing it in the Florida Keys because we have a lot to protect.”

This, she said, includes rare species. “The Burmese pythons coming out of the Everglades are eating a lot of our endangered species;” she said. “We want to make sure they don’t breed here.”

Not fond of the python? Try one of these

Some Florida natives 

provide lots of venom

Burmese pythons draw a lot of attention, but Florida is also home to six native poisonous snakes. Four can be found in South Florida. They are the coral snake, cottonmouth or water moccasin, pygmy rattlesnake and eastern diamondback.

As with most animal species, their attributes differ — sometimes a little; sometimes a lot.

The coral snake body pattern consists of broad rings of red and black, separated by narrow rings of yellow that encircle the body. Unlike most other venomous snakes, the coral is shy by nature. Most bites from coral snakes come from handling one.

The water moccasin or cottonmouth is the most abundant of the venomous snakes. It lives in water and is considered more deadly than the rattlesnake. If a cottonmouth is surprised by an intruder, it will draw its head back and up, opening its mouth to show its white parts. This gave the snake its name — cottonmouth.

The cottonmouth is a nocturnal hunter that usually rests near the water during daylight. Unlike most other snakes, the cottonmouth might pursue anyone who goes into its territory.

Pygmy rattlesnakes are the smallest of these venomous snakes — and the smallest of all living rattlesnakes. The rattle produced by them can be heard only from within eight feet. It sounds like an insect buzzing. When bothered, the snake immediately coils and then lashes out at the intruder.

“Despite the small size of the fangs and venom glands, the venom is considered by many scientists to be very powerful,” said Robert Anderson, author of Complete Guide to Snakes of Florida. “The little snake should be highly respected,” he said.

The eastern diamondback is the largest of all living rattlesnakes. It is easily recognized by having a striking dorsal pattern of light-centered, dark diamonds with yellowish-white borders. When it feels threatened, a diamondback will coil, raising its head and neck into an S position, signaling that it is ready to strike.

More like this: Wild Things

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