The Burmese python and the fight for the Florida Everglades

The Florida Everglades are famous throughout the world, with alligators as perhaps their best-known inhabitants. However, there’s a new predator in town — and it is wreaking havoc on this remarkable ecosystem.

At a coffee shop in Davie, Florida, I'm waiting for wildlife biologist Ian Bartoszek. He causes a huge stir as he walks in with a giant platter of what could easily be choux pastries. Patrons look on confused, some approaching to ask if they are potatoes.

Nature and Environment | 28.03.2018

"These are Burmese python eggs," he tells them. "Right now in the field, there are many female pythons we didn't catch sitting on a clutch like this that will probably hatch."

The clutch of 40 desiccated eggs he carries is a highly effective hammer to drive home his point. Bartoszek, who works for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, feels it is necessary to do everything he can to bring people's attention to the havoc these creatures are wreaking.

Florida's Everglades are known internationally for their alligators, but now another reptile has become king: The invasive Burmese python. Native to South and Southeast Asia, the snake species was first sighted in the Florida Everglades in the 1970s, after irresponsible pet owners released them into the ecosystem.

The Everglades’ subtropical environment, with its ideal temperatures and abundance of defenseless prey, has helped the population of Burmese pythons explode.

The subtropical environment, with its ideal temperatures and abundance of defenseless prey, helped their population explode. Today, the consequences are being felt.

Eating their way through native wildlife

By some estimates, their numbers may now exceed 150,000. The huge reptiles, which can grow to lengths of 23 feet (7 meters), and which weigh in at 250 pounds (113.4 kilograms), have eaten their way though much of the native wildlife, including raccoons, foxes, marsh rabbits, and birds.

Read more: Can The Everglades Be Saved?

"We have recorded a 99 percent reduction of fur-bearing animals," says Michael Kirkland, Invasive Animal Biologist at South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). "They are now preying on wading birds and even the occasional alligator."

As populations of smaller mammals dwindle, the effects ripple up the food chain, and native predators like alligators and endangered Florida panthers lose their primary food sources.

"The pythons have essentially wiped out their prey base in Miami-Dade County, Everglades National Park and surrounding areas. We suspect they are going to be expanding their territories both west and north," says Kirkland.

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The Everglades ecosystem, which once sprawled across more than 6,250 square miles (16,187 square kilometers), has been reduced to half its original size by agriculture and urban expansion, and now the pythons threaten to make the 'glades barren of life.

Florida's Everglades are known internationally for their alligators, but now another reptile has become king: the invasive Burmese python.

"Doing nothing is not an option," Kirkland asserts. To protect the remaining wildlife, the SFWMD has licensed a select group to participate in its python hunting program, which began last year.

Read more: Invading iguanas tear through Florida's ecosystem

Recording its 1,100th python catch recently, the agency has extended the program and the Everglades National Park is joining the effort, recruiting python hunters to remove the snakes and permitting the use of shotguns. "I believe the park is really the epicenter of the python invasion," asserts Kirkland.

Hunting in the dark

The Everglades is a tough environment — a vast, slow-moving waterway with a surprising variety of terrain and dramatic seasonal changes. With oppressively sticky heat, biting flies, razor-sharp sawgrass and even poisonous trees, it's no walk in the park.

Hunters can spend a whole week of 12-hour days looking for pythons without finding a single one, so perseverance is key. Thomas Rahill, one of those authorized to remove the snakes, is founder of the Swamp Apes, a group mostly composed of military veterans dedicated to fighting invasive species. He is well aware of the perils of the job.

"When you come across a big python, I don't care where you are, it is a very dangerous animal, you have to know what you are doing," he says.

Once the sun sets, impenetrable darkness quickly descends over the 'glades. Firing up a spotlight mounted on his car roof, Rahill looks for pythons crossing on the levees, which are the perfect places for these cold-blooded predators to warm up.

As one of the largest snakes in the world, they are ectotherms — meaning their body temperature regulation depends on external sources, such as sunlight or a heated rock surface.

Rahill says most of the 500 snakes the Swamp Apes have caught were found while road cruising on the levees, especially at night.

Swamp Apes, a group mostly composed of military veterans dedicated to fighting invasive species, display a catch.

Swamp Ape python hunters also walk along the sides of the levees, searching every hole and burrow, looking for python nests with a borescope camera. As they move on, they cover the holes with dried sawgrass, returning later to check for disturbances.

Rahill's team also takes boats out to tree-covered islands, where they push through dense vegetation on foot  — a technique they call "jungle busting."

Apex predators

Back at the coffee shop, biologist Ian Bartoszek expands on the urgent need to understand the pythons' behavior. The team at Conservancy of Southwest Florida has implanted male pythons with transmitters and tracked them, with definite success.

Their research area now covers 50 square miles, having expanded significantly over the past five years. In February this year, an implanted snake they named "Argo" led them to a 99-pound gravid female python. Three days later, Argo was released and tracked again to seven snakes, including a 115-pound female.

In four years of tracking, the team has removed 10,000 pounds of python biomass from their research area.

Read more: Poachers target endangered animals in protected areas, study finds

"We are interested in busting up those breeding aggregations. We are not looking for the street dealers, we are looking for the distributors," explains Bartoszek.

The conservancy now has 20 male snakes working for them. Other researchers are attempting to synthesize the python's pheromones to attract larger numbers of pythons.

"I have a feeling we're definitely gaining some ground in some key areas," Bartoszek tells DW.

The Burmese python's reign is challenging the Everglades apex predator, the alligator. Recently, Mike Kimmel, a hunter with the SFWMD, rescued a 4-foot alligator from the grip of a 10-foot python.

As Mike Kirkland puts it, "pythons really are the apex predator now — a large python and a large alligator, either one could win that battle. The alligator is about the only native animal down here that could possibly win."

Earlier this year, conservancy biologists discovered a 3.35 meter long female python with a white-tailed deer inside its mouth.

Earlier this year, conservancy biologists from Collier-Seminole State Park, a Florida State Park located on the southwest coast of the US state, discovered a 11-foot long female python with a white-tailed deer inside its mouth.

"That was a 31.5-pound python that had a 35-pound white-tailed fawn in it. It was eating 111 percent of its body weight," says Bartoszek.

It is the largest documented prey-to-predator ratio documented for a Burmese python. "I'm holding it in my hands looking at this small jaw. It was a turning point. I knew then the beast we're dealing with and what it is capable of."

Record-breaking snakes

The most venomous snake

The inland taipan produces the most toxic venom in the snake kingdom. Researchers estimate that one bite could kill more than 100 men. The taipan's venom is specially adapted to kill warm-blooded animals. It affects the nervous system, the blood and the muscles. The species lives in semi-arid regions in Australia and is strictly protected.

Record-breaking snakes

The deadliest snake

Though its venom only kills one out of 10 untreated people, the aggressiveness of this snake means it bites quickly and often. This is why the saw-scaled viper is considered the world's deadliest snake, killing the most people. Venomous snakes have diamond-shaped pupils, like cats. Non-venomous snakes have round pupils, like humans. But remember: there is no rule without exceptions!

Record-breaking snakes

The largest snake

The green anaconda is the largest snake in the world. Living in the dark, deep waters of the South American jungle, some anacondas have been reported to be up to 8.8 meters (29 feet) long. The average anaconda is only about 4 meters long. They are very robust snakes and packed with muscles which they use to kill their prey by wrapping around it and slowly suffocating it.

Record-breaking snakes

Even larger

The green anaconda is nothing compared to the titanoboa. This pre-historic snake was a true giant. The photo shows a python creeping over a single vertebra of titanoboa cerrejonensis discovered in Colombia. Fossils suggest titanoboas could grow up to 13 meters long and weigh 1,135 kilograms (2502 pounds). Like the green anaconda, they probably lived in or very close to water, 40 million years ago.

Record-breaking snakes

The smallest snake

The Barbados threadsnake is about 10 centimeters long and, according to its discoverer "about as wide as a spaghetti noodle." It feeds on termites and ant larvae and is found only on the Caribbean island of Barbados. S. Blair Hedges, a herpetologist from Pennsylvania State University, discovered the species in 2008.

Record-breaking snakes

The greediest snake

Snakes have a flexible lower jaw that enables them to swallow animals twice their own size. But sometimes even that is too much for them. In 2005, in the Everglades National Park in Florida, a python exploded after trying to swallow a whole alligator. The snake was found with the alligator's tail sticking out of its midsection. Seems like someone got a bit greedy.

Record-breaking snakes

A master of camouflage

Just a leaf? No, it's a gaboon viper. The form and color of its head resembles a leaf perfectly, enabling the ambush predator to wait patiently for prey coming by in the African rainforests. It has the longest fangs of all snakes - up to 5 centimeters (2 inches) - and is also very venomous. The snake is not at all aggressive, though. Only very few people are bitten by it.

Record-breaking snakes

The sneakiest snake

This guy, the scarlet kingsnake, is non-venomous. But it doesn't want other animals to know that. So it mimics the venomous coral snake which has the same tricolored pattern of black, red and white. It's a sneaky way to tell predators to get lost.

Record-breaking snakes

Most water-loving snake

Snakes are everywhere - you can even find them at a coral reef. Some of those sea snakes are really venomous. Unlike fish, they do not have gills and need to get up to the surface regularly to breathe. Sea snakes can grow up to 3 meters (9.8 feet), but the majority only grows up to 1.5 meters. This species, the banded sea snake, regularly returns to land to digest its food, rest and reproduce.

Record-breaking snakes

Snakes that fly

This snake can propel itself forward by thrusting its body up and away from a tree. That's why it is commonly known as the "flying snake." It curls itself up to resemble the form of a frisbee and glide up to 30 meters wide from tree to tree. Its biological name is Chrysopelea and it feeds on lizards, rodents, birds and even bats. But it's harmless to humans.

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