ANIMAL IDENTIFICATION CAN BRING SURPRISES

by Whit Gibbons

August 23, 2015

Public attitudes about wildlife have changed considerably in the last few years, and people have more interest than ever in identifying wildlife they encounter. With the increased availability of full-color nature books and websites, people can often find answers for themselves. The use of cell phone photography is also helpful after the fact in determining just what it was one saw.

However, the following are two questions I received this month that reveal a developing problem related to identifying what we've seen. Sometimes the animals we encounter these days are not native species.

Q: I am looking at your herpetology website (www.srelherp.uga.edu) and am unable to identify a snake I spotted at my home in Columbus, NC. I have attached a photograph. Can you help?

A: That snake is not on SREL's website because it is a ball python, which is not native to this country, or even to the Western Hemisphere. The species is from central Africa, but thousands of pet ones live in this country. Most folks would be relieved to know that ball pythons seldom reach 6 feet in length. Some pet owner is probably missing this one.

That incident was benign enough. Some people might find the next one a little more alarming.

Q: My wife was driving on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard in Atlanta when she passed a water collection pond and spotted what she thought was a large tree limb protruding from under a hedge. As she got closer, the "limb" jerked back toward the hedge and she could see its entire length - it was a huge snake. Her estimate of its length was 10 to 12 feet! Could it have been an escaped boa constrictor? To whom should we report this sighting?

A: That's pretty long for a boa constrictor, though possible, but it is certainly much bigger than any native snake. One guess would be a python, the default being a Burmese python, that is an escaped pet or has been intentionally released. Pythons are now firmly established residents in the Everglades and other parts of southern Florida, but individuals can turn up anywhere in the country where someone has one as a pet. I have received python reports from most of the southern states and as far north as Michigan, Illinois and Toronto.

Escapes are common, as anyone who has ever kept pet snakes knows. But many of the isolated encounters of pythons are a result of intentional releases. People aren't necessarily being malicious when they release exotic snakes that have become too large to care for. Nonetheless, the act is environmentally irresponsible and potentially cruel. Many tropical snakes that have been kept as pets cannot even capture their own food in the wild and are likely to die from starvation. Some may find refuge in sewer drains or beneath buildings where they are less likely to be seen and can find rodents to eat. Most will die during their first winter anywhere outside of southern Florida.

If you find an exotic snake, you can report the sighting to your state wildlife department, but most of these agencies are overwhelmed by the number of requests for wildlife assistance and have limited personnel to deal with them. Meanwhile, local nature centers are sometimes able to accommodate large exotic snakes. However, most eventually will have an oversupply from such opportunities. Reporting a sighting of a boa or python to a regional herpetology organization can sometimes be productive. Members in the area might know of someone who has an escaped pet they are looking for.

The danger from free-ranging pythons has yet to be fully realized. A 12-foot python loose in a residential area would have no reservations about catching, constricting and then eating a cat or small dog that was nosing around. If you spot a big python in your neighborhood, you should certainly report its presence to your neighbors, if for no other reason than to give folks something to talk about.

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