by Whit Gibbons

August 31, 2014

Q: My high school biology class is discussing environmental topics of current interest, including pythons in the Florida Everglades. Someone said you wrote the foreword to a book on the subject. Can you identify the book and answer my questions about the pythons?

A: The book is “Invasive Pythons in the United States: Ecology of an Introduced Predator” (University of Georgia Press). Written by Michael E. Dorcas (Davidson College) and John D. Willson (University of Arkansas), it offers a thorough assessment of the status of pythons in the Everglades.

Q: Have pythons truly invaded Florida? If so to what extent?

A: The python introductions in southern Florida, especially in the Everglades, are unequivocally a problem and have been well studied. Many scientists are working to understand the biology of Burmese and other python species and determine what can be done to control their spread. Their negative environmental impact is staggering because native wildlife in Florida (including deer, herons, and raccoons) are not adapted to coexist with giant constrictors and readily fall prey to the big predators.

Q: Should the public worry about the pythons in the Everglades? Are they a threat to humans?

A: The largest pythons are females, which can be more than 20 feet long, and could easily kill an adult human by constriction. One Florida python known to have eaten an 80-pound deer could certainly swallow a small person. Pythons typically eat mammals, birds, and even alligators. A large predatory snake is unlikely to have any regard for whether it is eating a human or some other animal it considers prey. I’m not sure that it’s useful to “worry” about being eaten by a python, but being cautious in areas where they occur seems prudent.

Q: If pythons were to enter other southern states would they become a major problem?

A: The presence of occasional individual pythons in areas outside of Florida already occurs but is unlikely to become a major environmental or safety problem. The media will thrive on the sensationalism of reporting that a giant snake is around, but as far as being a danger to people and pets, the pythons would not be any more of a threat than lots of other potential but rare wildlife hazards (coyotes, venomous snakes, mountain lions). In colder climates outside Florida, pythons could be inactive for up to half the year.

Q: What would be the best way to combat an invasion of pythons to other regions, and will the problem be easy to control?

A: Total elimination of pythons by human intervention will probably not be possible in some situations except on a case-by-case basis. An extended cold winter could eliminate local populations in many areas. Complete control is probably too late because pythons have already become established in southern Florida. A young python could easily hide on construction materials, horticultural items, or other goods and then be transported anywhere in the country. Convincing people who have pet pythons not to release them into the wild would be a big step in preventing further invasion, since that’s probably how a lot of them initially got into Florida and other states.

Q: Organizations are working to capture pythons in Florida and remove them from parks and natural areas, and python-hunting contests have been held. Is hunting pythons an effective way to combat the invasion? What other steps should be taken at this time?

A: I do not think the python-hunting contests will be particularly effective as a control measure, though they may make people aware of the problem. Having scientific debates on how best to solve the problem would be a useful step, although not all scientists will agree on the best course to take. Python experts do not even agree on how far north the big snakes could extend their range. But scientific discussion in concert with continued research would clearly be an important step to take in developing strategies for coping with the invasive pythons.

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