Pythons in the Glades: Invasive, evasive

Photos by Tim Chapman

Unwanted Snakes Are Hard to Capture

Beyond the weathered boardwalk in the Everglades, an hour’s drive west of Miami, the sawgrass and cattails looked like a field of wheat, swaying in the light breeze. Bill Colantuono headed for the shade of a pavilion, gravel crunching under his boots.  He talked about snakes. “Once,” he said, “I caught a 16-foot Burmese python.”

Colantuono is a ranger at Everglades National Park and often shows visitors a photograph of himself and the giant snake.  Many have heard that pythons have become a big problem in the Glades.

In fact, in Florida the Burmese python is now a symbol of what scientists like to call “invasive species” – creatures that usually live somewhere else, but for one reason or another, have been brought to the Everglades, or some other place, and turned loose. These invasive creatures then commence to upset the natural balance among wildlife in  their new homes.  In the Everglades, the Burmese python, native to Southeast Asia, has ravaged small animals like raccoons, marsh rabbits and opossums.

Researchers from Davidson College and four other colleges and universities, as well as from organizations like the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, say these little animals, once abundant, are now hard to find. And they think the pythons are to blame.

Nobody knows how many Burmese pythons are slithering around in the Everglades. Tens of thousands, for sure, experts say; maybe even as many as 100,000.

Everglades National Park officials would like to get rid of the snakes. But they don’t hold out much hope. The Obama Administration has established a ban on importing Burmese pythons into the United States and prohibits shipping snakes already in the country from one state to another. The Florida Legislature has made it illegal to import Burmese pythons and six similar snakes or to keep them as pets. But the Burmese pythons already in the Everglades are expected to keep mating and multiplying. Experts say the pythons routinely lay as many as 100 eggs at a time.

Efforts to hunt down the snakes have not been very effective. In one three-year stretch ending in 2011, about 1,000 Burmese pythons were captured, the authorities say – not that many, considering the estimates of how many are believed to be out there. Linda Friar, a spokeswoman for Everglades National Park, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel the snakes are hard to find. They are not only invasive, she said, “they’re evasive.”

Male Burmese pythons can grow up to 12 feet long. Females get even bigger, sometimes up to 18 feet long, and may weigh as much as a couple hundred pounds. As youngsters, the snakes are kind of cuddly. And that makes them popular pets. They are also admired for their distinctive buttery-colored skin with big black and brown markings.

A baby python that might be two feet long will fit comfortably into a small, living-room aquarium. Some people find it entertaining to watch them snap up snacks of baby mice. Within six months, Baby Python  often becomes five feet long, gobbling up half a dozen bunnies for breakfast and lounging around the family room.  About then, the romance goes out of the relationship for the people of the house. They decide that Baby Python must go. In Florida, that often means a quiet trip to the Everglades. Baby Python returns to nature.

Burmese pythons are a kind of snake referred to as a constrictor. They don’t bite their victims and inject venom; they squeeze them to death. When they’re hungry, experts say, the snakes sneak up to  grab a rabbit or a raccoon with their needle-sharp teeth and powerful jaws. Then they coil their muscular body around the animal and squeeze the life out of it.

Dan Kimball, the superintendent of Everglades National Park, says there have been “no incidents” of Burmese pythons attacking people in the Everglades.  But he says anyone out in the wilds of South Florida “should be vigilant.”

The Burmese python is not the only snake that worries environmentalists and government officials. When the Obama Administration moved against Burmese pythons, it also shut the door on imports and interstate trading of three similar snakes: The northern and southern African rock pythons and the yellow anaconda.

One of the other snakes may be more trouble than the Burmese python. “Northern African pythons are reputed to have a nastier disposition,” said Scott Hardin, the exotic species coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Tallahassee.

“African pythons are not as attractive as other constrictors,” Hardin said in an interview.  They have a thick body, he said, covered with brown and olive blotches, and they can grow up to 30 feet in length.

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wants to rid the Everglades of Rock pythons, too.  But they are proving to be even harder to find than Burmese pythons. Over several years, Hardin said, the Commission has managed to bag 19 Rock pythons.

Not all the pythons in the Everglades got there intentionally.   Many were being held in snake warehouses when Hurricane Andrew raked South Florida 20 years ago. Miami had become a center for snake importing.  During the storm, the warehouses came apart in the high winds, and the snakes made their way toward the swamp.

In the Everglades, 4,000 square miles of swamp and marshes, the American alligator is at the top of the food chain.  A few times, a Burmese python has taken on an alligator. The Florida Nature Conservancy says pythons can swallow alligators up to 4 feet long.

In some cases, Burmese pythons have stealthily glided through murky water and water lilies and wrapped themselves around an alligator in a death grip.  One python-alligator battle was documented by Heiko Kiera, a Florida wildlife photographer and videographer, in a marshy spot south of Everglades National Park.

“The fight lasted over two hours,” Kiera told me.  At one point, the snake and the alligator were frozen in combat: most of the snake coiled around the alligator and squeezing, a section of the snake clasped in the powerful jaws of the alligator.  Finally, the alligator relaxed its jaw muscles and the python pulled away. On camera, the wounded python seemed to throw the alligator one last haughty glance before slithering off into the sawgrass.

Some battles have ended in death for both combatants. One photo widely viewed on the Internet shows a 13-foot-long python dead in a watery field with the carcass of a 6-foot-long alligator protruding from its ripped midsection.

Florida officials and the Florida unit of the Nature Conservancy, an international nonprofit organization with headquarters in Arlington, Va., that is dedicated to protecting natural habitats and wildlife, have been working to counter the proliferation of pythons.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has set up what it calls its Non-Native Pet Amnesty Program.  Under the program, people give up their snakes and other non-native pets like monkeys and parrots for adoption, and the commission arranges for the animals to go to new owners. Hardin said there are no penalties or fees involved.

Seven years ago, the Florida unit of  Nature Conservancy started a “Python Patrol” program.  Experts at the Conservancy ask people to report pythons sightings and they train wildlife officials in 10 southern Florida counties in how to capture pythons.

The Conservancy has set up a hotline, 1-888-IVE-GOT-1, to report python sightings, and uses an iPhone application called IveGot1 created at the University of Georgia Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health. People using the application can snap a photo, tag the invader’s location, and send in a report to the Conservancy.

When someone reports seeing a python,  the Conservancy calls into action one of its trained wildlife officials.  Cheryl Millett, a biologist at the Conservancy who runs the python patrol program, says the program especially tries to capture pythons on the outskirts of the Everglades. That way, she said, “We may be able to stop the spread and prevent new breeding.”

They teach two capturing techniques: Treadmilling and distraction. In treadmilling, a responder holds the back end of the snake loosely, and then drags his or her hands along the snake’s underbelly. This rhythmic motion tricks the python into thinking it’s escaping. It’s as if the snake is on a treadmill. In distraction, one person distracts the snake so another can sneak up on it. The distractor may wave a piece of cloth or jump around – anything to get the snake’s attention. The idea is to trick or tire the snake. When the python is tired, Millett told me, it is fairly easy to grab it at the base of the head and avoid having it coil  around the capturer’s arms or legs.

“They don’t use nets or long poles,” Millett said of the Python Patrol  officers.  Instead, the snake catchers use a short stick with a steel hook at one end to coax snakes into a pair of double-stitched, closely-woven bags. “We generally use pillowcases because they fit the bill, are easy to find and are inexpensive,” Millett told me.

“We ask the responders to consider safety first and then work to tire out the snake before they capture it,” Millett said. “Luckily these pythons tire very quickly.”

Bagged pythons are sent to research centers or used to train members of the Python Patrols.  When a snake is captured, the Conservancy wants details. “The general information we like to have about each python includes: length, weight and sex,” Millett told me. If the snake is dead, she said, researchers can discover what it’s eaten and whether it was carrying eggs.

During the breeding season, in March or April, researchers sometimes implant small radio transmitters in female snakes to track them and to help locate male Burmese pythons.  The female pythons give off an aroma that attracts mates, Millett said.  When a male python catches a whiff of the scent and heads for the female, the Python Patrol moves in with a steel-hooked stick and a trapper’s bag.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issues permits to expert snake handlers to hunt pythons. The annual permit fee is $26.  So far only a little more than a dozen snake experts have applied and they have not brought back many snakes. The hunters can either kill or capture the snakes, Hardin told me by  phone. Allowed weapons are those in season – bow and arrow, for example, during the archery season. The Wildlife Conservation Commission requires hunters to photograph the snake and, with the help of a GPS device, report exactly where it was caught.

There is no pay for killing a python, but hunters can sell the meat and the skin.  Some people are willing to buy the skin to make things like shoes and purses, which can bring fairly high prices.  There doesn’t seem to be much of a market for the meat. The authorities say it is loaded with mercury that the snakes absorb through their diet. Mercury levels are high in some parts of the Glades, polluted with city and hospital waste, said Hardin.

At his post in the Everglades at a place called Shark Valley, Ranger Colantuono was getting ready for one of the regular tram tours that take tourists on a looping route past sunning alligators and, often, exotic birds like snow-white ibises with long, curved beaks and stunning, pink, roseate spoonbills.

Dark clouds were closing in. But it could be an hour, maybe two before the rain, Colantuono figured. The people on the trams would probably see some gators. A few long-legged water birds too. They might even catch sight of a Burmese python. But probably not.  The pythons are well camouflaged.


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One response to “Pythons in the Glades: Invasive, evasive”

  1. Ed Domansky says:

    This was a very interesting and informative story. Great details.