Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park

Snakes in the ’Glades: Burmese pythons are here to stay, expert warns

December 21, 2009, 9:40 am

Larry Perez cautions against sensationalism when considering the Burmese python population in the Everglades.

The facts alone are serious enough, the National Park Service science communications liaison said during a recent talk at Port of the Islands in Collier County.

Speaking to some 70 people gathered for a meeting of the Friends of Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, Perez showed a chart indicating an exponential growth rate in the number of the up-to-20-foot-long constrictors captured in the Everglades National Park and surrounding preserves.

“The first question everyone always asks is ‘how many are there?’” he said. “The truth is, we don’t know.”

Estimates of python population in the Everglades, he said, range from 5,500 snakes to 137,000.

In any event, Burmese pythons are here to stay. The climate and vegetation are ideal, food is plentiful, and the snakes have successfully vied with native alligators, the best hope for a natural control.

Of 367 known invasive species in South Florida, said Perez, only two have ever been fully eliminated.

“No biologist will say we have a snowball’s chance in hell of eradicating Burmese pythons,” he said.

In theory, he added, their range could spread over much of the southern one third of the U.S.

Perez told the group that, while there are no recorded attacks on humans by Burmese pythons in the Everglades, they must be considered dangerous. National Park personnel are cautioned that an 8-foot python could overpower an adult, and the snakes can attain that length in one year on their way to becoming a 200-pound, 20-footer.

Burmese pythons are ambush predators, lurking either in the water or on land until prey comes within reach. In their home range in Southeast Asia, they are considered apex predators, with no creature likely to attack an adult specimen.

A 12-foot python set down in the Everglades grasses, surrounded by biologists, was able to disappear within five seconds, he said.

“We would never find their nests without radio tracking,” Perez said.

Their preferred diet, based on examination of the stomach contents of captured – and killed, as they are – wild pythons in the Everglades, consists of 75 percent mammals and 25 percent birds. Rabbits, rodents, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, and bobcats all fall victim to Burmese pythons, along with coots, ibis, and the occasional 5-foot alligator.

The 13 deaths in the U.S. from constrictor snakes since 1980 all came from pet snakes, said Perez, including the tragic killing of a 2-year-old girl by her parents’ 8-foot pet albino Burmese python in Oxford in Central Florida this past July.

Perez referred questions to or sought confirmation on some points from audience members, including former Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park manager Dennis Giardina, National Park Service wildlife biologist Deborah Jansen and Audubon Society naturalist John Elting.

While Burmese pythons almost certainly began breeding from pet snakes released into the Everglades, said Perez, laying blame at this point misses the point.

“The question is, ‘What can we do?’” Along with responsible ownership, he said, reporting sightings is key to understanding the python population. “Use your cell phone, your camera, your GPS,” he urged, to document and pinpoint the location of python interactions.

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A Web site, www.evergladescisma.org has been set up, he said, to log citizen spottings of Burmese pythons and other invasive pests.

The Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area is an effort by government agencies to work together to address the new challenges for invasive species management.

The Friends of Fakahatchee Strand State Park Preserve, founded to help maintain and protect the preserve, is a 501(c)3 organization, relying on membership fees and private donations. To learn more about the group’s programs, including guided swamp walks, canoe trips through mangrove tunnels, and wildlife watching opportunities, go to www.friendsoffakahatchee.org.

Source: NaplesNews.com