A war is being waged in the Everglades between Burmese pythons and the swamp’s other top predator.
Story by ZACH WEISSMUELLER
A 13-foot Burmese python didn’t quite know what it was getting into when it tried ingesting a 6-foot alligator in the Florida Everglades in October 2005. The results of the encounter resemble a burst balloon: The tail and back legs of the dead alligator trail out of the exploded python, which is splayed across the marsh and weeds, its extremities sinking into the shallow swamp just enough so that it’s difficult to tell which end is the head.
“Sometimes a snake will make a mistake,” says Everglades National Park’s wildlife biologist Skip Snow.
By October 2006, scientists have already documented 122 pythons in the Everglades, but there could be more than 1,000 there. The recorded population is more than 11 times greater than the 11 pythons recognized from 1995 to 2000. Before that, they’d found only one — in 1979.
This increase in the population began when pet owners would release pythons that had grown too large to handle. This is common because Burmese pythons average about 15 to 20 feet and weigh between 120 and 170 pounds. These released pythons have settled into the marshy, jungle-like setting of the Everglades and are rapidly reproducing with females able to lay between 12 and 100 eggs a year.
Kenneth Krysko, who specializes in snake biology, explains that the Burmese python easily can adapt to the Everglades because it is semi-aquatic with the ability to hold its breath underwater for 30 minutes.
The introduction of another major predator to an ecosystem worries biologists because those marshes have been ruled for millions of years by only one, the alligator. Imagine putting a piranha in a fish pond and waiting to see what happens.
A Burmese python eats anything it calculates will fit inside of its stomach. And it has, indeed, been known to make calculative mistakes. Two years before the python explosion, the King of the Swamp went to battle — in public.
In 2003, guests standing near the entrance of the Everglades National Park witnessed an American alligator clash with a Burmese python. According to Skip Snow, the biologist in charge of the python-removal project, hundreds of people saw the two tangle for hours before tiring out and heading their separate ways.
After that spectacle, Snow began studying and extracting pythons. The project received little attention until the photo of the “exploding python” was published in 2005, spurring guesswork among amateurs and professionals. Some crocodilian specialists hypothesized that the alligator was alive when ingested and proceeded to claw its way out after awaking from a near-comatose state. Krysko thinks that the alligator’s osteoderms (bony scales) were impermeable to the snake’s digestive fluids. Because the alligator was too large for the snake to regurgitate, bursting was the only option. Snow believes the alligator’s tough skin tore holes in the snake’s stomach, causing the snake’s digestive fluids to eat through its own skin. Other investigators theorized that a second alligator spotted the bloated snake and clawed at it from the outside.
According to Snow, alligators have battled pythons six times in the Everglades. Two aforementioned encounters are considered to be “draws.” In the other four encounters, alligator trumped python.
Skip Snow – Python hunter
Three times a week, Snow drives 20 minutes deep into the wilderness of the Everglades. He is trying to locate one of the four Burmese pythons that he tagged earlier and set loose in the park. All four of the snakes were extracted from the Everglades, surgically implanted with transmitters and re-released. The experiment is to observe whether the snakes stay in areas near roads or spread throughout the Everglades. So far, it seems that the pythons are penetrating the swamplands, as three of the four snakes have slithered out to distant tree islands.
Snow also is studying and synthesizing python pheromones. Pythons emit pheromones that attract other pythons, especially during mating season. He seeks to reproduce these chemicals, mimicking the scent-baiting tactic to lure pythons into traps.
What about the birds (and other tasty creatures)?
This is the typical three-step procedure for dealing with an Everglades python: extract (pull out with snake-grabbing tools), euthanize, and study its anatomy to see what it’s been munching on.
Snow lists the following animals found inside the bellies of the Everglades pythons: squirrels, possums, raccoons, muskrats, white ibis, a bobcat and wading birds. Although the bobcat is one of the more bizarre dining choices, the wading birds are the real punch in the face. Biologist have spent years trying to support the dwindling population, which was first devastated by plume hunters in the early 20th century and later by the mismanagement of water in South Florida.
Snow acknowledges that it may be too late to fight the python problem effectively, especially without adequate funding. But even if they are able to stop the illegal releases, there’s no way to stop the pythons from breeding in the wild.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Snow says that the United States needs a paradigm shift when it comes to exotic species.
“Imported reptiles are guilty until proven innocent,” he says. He wants Florida’s system to mirror that of Australia’s, where a series of investigations are approved before a licensed individual is given a species. In Florida, only venomous snakes require ownership licensing.
Florida Statute 372.265 prohibits the sale, use or release of non-indigenous species without a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Violation is a first-degree misdemeanor. Snow is focusing on tightening laws and improving pet-owner education to further block invasions. He predicts that inaction will shift South Florida’s ecosystem, possibly leading to the extinction of several native species.
“The best dollar spent for exotic animal control is on prevention,” he says.