BURMESE PYTHON COULD BE MORE THAN A PEST
by Whit Gibbons
June 6, 2004
you like to find out that a 15-foot-long Burmese python was a permanent
resident in your neighborhood? Add to this report that someone has found
a clutch of 50 recently hatched python eggs, which means that pythons
are breeding and that the juveniles have dispersed into the area. This
exact scene has not been documented yet in suburban areas of south Florida,
but the possibility exists. A recent book (The Exotic Amphibians and Reptiles
of Florida, 2004, Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, FL) by Walter E.
Meshaka, Jr., Brian P. Butterfield, and J. Brian Hauge gives cause for
the human residents of Florida to address the issue of introduced species
of herpetofauna that have now become their new neighbors in the state.
provides an account of 40 species of reptiles and amphibians that are
now believed to be established residents in the state. In other words,
they have breeding populations that will continue to persist, often to
the detriment of native species. Most of the exotic reptiles that now
thrive in Florida are lizards and include species from Asia, Africa, India,
and tropical America. Introduced species often do well in a new region
because their population sizes are no longer controlled by natural predators.
One of the ways that exotic species can eliminate native species is by
outcompeting them for food, or in many cases just be eating them. For
example, the Knight anole from Cuba will eat other lizards and reaches
twice the size of most native lizard species.
Many of the
exotic reptiles in Florida have been introduced as a consequence of the
pet trade. Pet snakes are notorious for escaping from cages, even from
professional herpetologists, and then getting out of a building. Pet trade
facilities can be damaged or destroyed by high winds or trees, resulting
in the escape of animals. For example, the book notes that the brown mabuya
skink, a lizard from Southeast Asia, became noticeably more abundant around
Coconut Grove in Dade County after Hurricane Andrew. But some releases
have been intentional. For example, in 1985 people living around a golf
course in Ft. Myers released Jamaican giant anoles, which now have an
One of the
paradoxes of the invasive plant and animal problem is that intuitively
a person might think that adding new species increases biodiversity. If
biodiversity is a good thing, why would it not be good to add more species
to the ones already present in a region? One of the simple explanations
is that when an introduced species becomes dominant in an area, native
species can decline in numbers and eventually disappear.
the animal pet trade is the ultimate source of most introduced exotic
species, the majority of the specimens themselves are released into the
environment by pet owners who are ordinary citizens. Getting a baby python
that is only a couple of feet long may seem like a good idea until you
notice that you have to feed it a full-grown chicken every couple of weeks.
The size differential would be like getting a red setter puppy and realizing
a few months later that it was the size of a cow. Not much smarter, but
a lot bigger.
to the book, the largest Burmese python found wild in Florida so far was
less than 8 feet long, slightly smaller than the largest indigo snakes
native to Florida. But these pythons are known to reach a length of 20
feet, which is more than twice the size of any snake native to the United
States. With a warm climate and the availability of plenty of food, pythons
should do well in south Florida. Young pythons will eat rats, mice, and
small birds, and larger ones will fare well on possums, raccoons, dogs,
cats, and larger birds. Burmese pythons can swim, climb trees, and creep
through thick underbrush, so they should find plenty to eat. We may soon
hear Floridians complaining that a resident species other than native
alligators is eating pets and is perceived as a threat to children. Ironically,
in contrast to alligators, which lived in the state long before people,
pythons were brought to Florida by the people themselves.
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