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Burmese Pythons in our Backyard



What exactly are Burmese pythons?

As its name implies, the species originates from Burma, and south and southeast Asia. One of the world’s five largest snakes, they can reach lengths of 23 feet, and swell to the girth of a telephone pole. In an ironic twist, they are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list in their native range. Habitat degradation is a problem, and they’re hunted for food, their beautiful skins, and captured for the pet trade. If eating, owning, or wearing a python wasn’t enough, you can also drink them – in the form of a traditional medicine known as snake wine – a snake-infused alcoholic drink. Never one to mix preserved animals into my drinks, this is one cocktail I’ll pass on!




How did Burmese pythons get to Florida?

The python’s dwindling population in their native land links back to Florida via cute hatchling snakes sold as pets. Burmese pythons are such a popular pet, nearly 100,000 were imported into the U.S. between 1996 and 2006. They’re also captively bred here. But like all babies, they grow fast, and those charming hatchlings can transform into an 8-foot-long snake within a year. Some pet owners, unable to care for their now-giant snakes, release them into the wild, representing careless – not to mention illegal – actions. Spotted intermittently in the ‘80s and ‘90s, today, we have tens of thousands of pythons over 1,000 square miles of South Florida, including Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. And the breeding snakes are likely spreading to new areas.




Are they a threat to humans?

While the idea of such a formidable predator in the Everglades may be a frightening prospect, there is a positive side: Over the course of a decade, only a handful of attacks on humans have occurred in Everglades National Park, and the worst case resulted in only minor injuries. All of those attacked were biologists, which seems a little unfair. Nonetheless, according to my rough calculations, you have a 67-time greater chance of being hit by lightning than being attacked by a python in the Park. In fact, there’s only one documented case of a fatality from a Burmese python attack in the wild, which happened nearly a century ago in Hong Kong. But, if you encounter a freakishly large predator, or one with lots of teeth, the best advice is to leave it alone. Never harass wildlife, and always give them ample space.


For pet owners, the story is slightly different. Although few in number, there have been fatalities from large pet snakes in the U.S. Have I mentioned yet that owning predators the size of a telephone pole is a bad idea? If not: It’s a bad idea.




Why are Burmese pythons a problem?

If threats to humans strolling around the Everglades aren’t a big concern, what is the problem with pythons? The real problem is their appetites. Some of their meals are remarkably gluttonous. They can eat adult alligators, and one python was found with the remains of three deer in its stomach. Amazingly, pythons can eat something half of its own body size, which is like an average American man eating 95 pounds of pizza for dinner. Because of their voracity, in areas with pythons in Everglades National Park, bobcats, rabbits, raccoons, foxes, opossums, and white-tailed deer have undergone massive declines (88% to 99%). Threatened species like Key Largo woodrats, wood storks, and wading bird nesting colonies also are at risk. This means that charismatic wading birds like roseate spoonbills, great egrets, snowy egrets, and white ibises – which have undergone 90% declines since the 1930s and 1940s – now face a new, mammoth threat. And to be the bearer of (more) bad Burmese python news: In addition to devouring mammals and birds, they’re also spreading disease to native snakes.




What’s being done to stop the pythons?

Despite their large size, Burmese pythons are difficult to detect in nature because they’re so well-camouflaged. Fortunately, researchers from the University of Florida, Davidson College, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, and the South Florida Water Management District are testing techniques to eradicate pythons. For example, individual “Judas” snakes have been implanted with transmitters which lead researchers to other pythons for removal. Another promising technique is the use of tracking dogs to find snakes, or using pheromones to lure male snakes into traps. If all else fails, there’s always hermaphroditism…almost. In a cleverly designed act of gender deception, implanting male garter snakes with estrogen made them emit female pheromones, attracting male snakes. This technique worked with another infamous invader in Guam, the brown tree snake, and may also work with Burmese pythons.


Finally, there’s also hunting. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission offers free training on identifying and removing Burmese pythons, and offers incentives to humanely kill them in the Everglades. The South Florida Water Management District also sponsors a Burmese python hunt in the Everglades. This winter, they reached the astounding milestone of removing over 11 tons of pythons that, if lined up, would stretch nearly 2.5 miles. But, like diseases, early detection is important for preventing the spread of invasive species. Because they’re now established, they’re very difficult to eradicate. The focus now is on preventing any further spread of pythons and keeping their population down.


So, for the next cocktail party, if the subject of pythons arises, you’ll know what to say. Burmese pythons slithering around the Everglades pose a small risk to humans, but a huge risk for other animals there, and the problem isn’t going away anytime soon. That’s the mix of good and bad news about Burmese pythons, which is kind of like getting a half-empty, snake-infused cocktail.






What can you do about pythons?

Giant constricting snakes don’t make good pets, and Burmese pythons can no longer be acquired as pets in Florida. If you have an unwanted pet, turn it in at a Pet Amnesty Day. Remember, it’s illegal to release non-native wildlife in Florida, and the penalties for doing so can result in a hefty fine, and up to one year in prison.



If you happen to see a Burmese python: Call the USNPS Python Line: 305-815-2080, or the Keys Python Line: 1-888-I've Got 1 (1-888-483-4681), or report the sighting online: www.IveGot1.org


If you need to request removal of a nuisance python or an unwanted pet reptile in Miami-Dade County, call the Fire Rescue Department: 786-331-4454

You can receive training from Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to remove pythons or participate in their incentive programs:



Want to find out more?

You’re at the right place. For more than 25 years, The Everglades Foundation has been the premiere organization fighting to restore and protect America’s Everglades through science, education, and advocacy.


You can sign up to learn more, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and, of course, we will appreciate any amount you can afford to give to support our mission at https://www.evergladesfoundation.org/give-now






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