IS THERE A PYTHON IN YOUR FUTURE?

by Whit Gibbons

June 18, 2017

I have recently received the following questions about pythons.

Q: Is it true that the state of Florida is hiring snake hunters to kill pythons in the Everglades? Haven’t they already done this and found that it was not an effective method for removing this invasive species from southern Florida?

A: A draft report (“Python Pilot Program Updates”) from the South Florida Water Management District summarizes python captures so far for 2017 and recommends continuing a program that hires snake hunters at minimum wage to find the snakes. A bounty for each individual killed is based on the snake’s length. The bigger the snake, the higher the amount. Florida’s hired hunters will begin their quest June 17.

The effectiveness of such hunts, even by experienced snake wranglers, is equivocal at best and an abject failure at worst. The program’s success, however, is measured not in number of kills but in increased public awareness about these gigantic, nonnative snakes that now thrive in southern Florida and consume startling numbers of native wildlife. In terms of controlling the increase in python numbers and their persistence, the statistics are not encouraging. For example, the previous cadre of snake hunters eliminated only 158 pythons from March through May. The majority were 7 to 10 feet long, with the largest being 16 feet.

By most estimates more than 100,000 pythons live in the Everglades and other areas of southern Florida. Removing a few hundred a year will never take care of the problem. And considering that a female can lay up to 80 eggs in a clutch annually ... well, you do the math. You don’t need a calculator to figure out that the odds are heavily in favor of the pythons.

Most pythons being caught and killed in southern Florida are near roads and other access points that snake collectors can get to readily. In addition, a snake is more obvious on pavement than in vegetation. In natural areas, the python’s cryptic body patterns and ability to go underwater make them almost impossible to find. Even experienced snake collectors cannot catch what they cannot see. When you consider that Everglades National Park is 1.5 million acres with few roads, the odds in favor of the pythons increase dramatically.

Q: I heard that pythons were originally brought in as pets by Vietnam vets. Is that an urban myth?

A: Some may have come back with veterans, but the primary source was and still is the pet trade.

Q: Do you think most of the pythons in Florida are former pets or did they escape during Hurricane Andrew. Or was it both?

A: Both. However, research findings indicate they were present in the wild in Florida at least by the 1980s, well before Hurricane Andrew. Additional individuals may have escaped during Andrew, but the snakes were likely already well established before then, just in lower densities.

Q: Is the invasive Burmese python in Florida taxonomically a subspecies or is it now listed as a species?

A: Some authorities consider it a subspecies of Python molurus from Southeast Asia; others consider it a distinct species, Python bivittatus. Ecologically and behaviorally it does not matter, because by either name it is an enormous snake that has found a home in southern Florida.

Q: Are pythons likely to continue moving up the Florida peninsula? What are the chances that they could make their way into Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina?

A: Pythons could be in any state as the result of random releases and could survive and reproduce in many of them. Whether enough snakes would be around to find each other and mate is unlikely in most situations. However, a recent and sobering observation suggests that some females can be parthenogenic, which means they can reproduce without a male. The pythons’ odds just keeping getting better.

Maybe it’s time to accept that the Burmese python has become permanently established in North America.

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