Are Pythons Devouring the Everglades?

A Burmese Python peeks over the eye of an alligator in the Everglades National Park. Photo: Lori Oberhofer, National Park Service

Since 2000, the presence of invasive Burmese pythons has been documented as a growing danger in the Everglades. Yesterday, pythons became big news when a report co-authored by US Geological Survey researchers documented just how much damage pythons may have caused.

The massive Burmese python is a generalist: They adapt quickly to new habitats and consume pretty much anything that comes their way. Their presence in the Everglades is  blamed on negligent pet owners who released their exotic pets into the ecosystem. While there are many reports of python predatory prowess, including tales of python-alligator battles (spoiler: the gator lost) and pythons with deer in their gullets, yesterday’s was among the first to hint the extent of the damage pythons may have caused.

The report linked dramatic drops in Everglades mammal populations to python proliferation. Bobcat sightings are down 87.5 percent, opossums 98.9 percent. Even the raccoon has been hit, with a decrease of 99.3 percent.

“At the moment it’s not clear what the impact of pythons is,” says study author Frank Mazzotti, of the University of Florida. "The problem is that by the time we get that information it’s generally too late to do anything about it.” Next, he and his colleagues will assess exactly how much the decrease in mammal populations reflects python predation rather than changes in habitat and water flow.

The report came two weeks after Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced a ban of the importation and interstate transportation of four giant species of snakes—the yellow anaconda, southern African python, northern African python, and Burmese python—that threaten the Everglades.

Carla Dove, program manager at the Smithsonian Institution's Divison of Birds, has studied the impact of pythons on the Everglades' birds. In a study published by Dove, Mazzoti and colleagues in March, they found twenty-five bird species in the digestive tracts of 85 Burmese pythons. The endangered wood stork and Key Largo woodrat have also been found in the bellies of Burmese pythons.

Dove notes that the ban is important because it increases awareness of invasives."We need to figure out how to make these changes earlier to make rapid decisions," Dove says.

Mazzotti also points out that awareness is key. “There are more than 140 reptiles and amphibians being introduced to the state of Florida now... We need to target the next Burmese python.”

There’s also something ordinary citizens, particularly in Florida, can do to help. Learn about your region’s invasive species and start or support an invasive species early detection network. In Florida, if you spot an invasive or big snake, call 1-888-IVE-GOT-1 (1-888-483-4681).

For more on the Everglades, read Ted Williams's "Life Support" and visit our photo gallery, "Lake Okeechobee."

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