Repost: Pythons upsetting ecological balance in Florida

This post originally appeared in my Backyard Birder blog on January 31, 2012. Since that time, the problem that it reports about has only gotten worse.


There are several stories in the news today about a recently released scientific study on the impact of an invasive species, the Burmese python, on Florida's wildlife. The study focuses on the Everglades and on the devastation of the small mammal population there. There are areas where raccoons, o'possums, rabbits, foxes, even bobcats, and other small mammals have virtually disappeared as a result of the introduction of these big snakes. The snakes also prey on reptiles and, to some extent, birds, but their preferred prey is mammals.

Pythons probably first got into the wild after being released by pet owners when the snakes got too big for them to deal with, but natural disasters such as hurricanes have also played a part when pet stores that had sold the snakes were destroyed and animals escaped. Because of the year-round warmth of the Florida climate and the abundance of prey animals, including domestic cats and dogs, the animals had no trouble surviving. The last two winters had brought cold weather to the state which had knocked the snakes back a bit and killed many of them, but this winter's mildness has been a boon to them, and it seems likely that they are on the march - or on the crawl - again and expanding their range. There is a fear that the warming climate will allow them to move into other areas, particularly across the Gulf states and even into South Texas, where their presence could create havoc in the ecology of the region.

While it is true that the bigger snakes mainly prey on mammals, the smaller ones do take birds as well as bird eggs and chicks during nesting season, but even if they never preyed on birds, upsetting the balance of Nature affects all the animals in it and, generally, the effect is not benevolent. Florida's wildlife officials, along with conservation organizations like the Nature Conservancy, are, of course, well aware of this and they are waging war on the python. They kill or remove from the wild as many of the snakes as they can find and they destroy nests when they locate them.

This picture, taken by Mike Rochford of the U.S. Geological Survey, shows the size that these creatures can reach. This one weighed in at 163 pounds.

But how do we stop an invasive, highly adaptable and fertile species? Is it even possible? Unless we get an assist from Mother Nature, in the form of colder winters, it seems likely that these snakes will continue to expand their range, despite our best efforts. Will the day come when I find one crawling in my Southeast Texas backyard?


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