With hurricane season underway, and alligators on the rampage, and sharks looking for lunch, does Florida really need Burmese pythons?
No way, says wildlife ecologist Frank Mazzotti of the University of Florida in Gainesville. But these non-native snakes have found a home in Everglades National Park, and their numbers are growing dramatically.
Although elusive by nature, these giant snakes have been seen doing battle with alligators, climbing trees fast enough to catch nesting chicks and swallowing animals as large as wood storks.
And they can be particularly hazardous on the highways. Any motorist could lose control when suddenly confronted by a reptile that can grow to 20 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds.
It's a major invasion by an ambush predator with an enormous appetite, says Mazzotti, who is leading a multi-agency effort to bring the population explosion under control. But it's going to be tough, if it's even possible.
At this point, no one even knows exactly how many pythons are in the Everglades.
"There's no credible estimate," says Mazzotti. "But 95 were removed from Everglades National Park in 2005, without a deliberate effort to catch them. And if you catch 10 percent of a population you usually think you've done astoundingly well.
"There are lots out there. It could easily be in the thousands."
And here's the root of the problem: Young Burmese pythons can be bought at flea markets and pet stores throughout South Florida for about $20, Mazzotti says, and they are a hot item.
But they don't stay young for long, and they don't stay small. In time, they become too much to handle as pets.
"You have to regularly kill large animals, like rabbits, to feed it, and it can grow to 200 pounds, and it defecates like a horse," Mazzotti says.
So what do the owners do? They release them into the swamps, where they go forth and multiply.
Scientists from several institutions, including the National Park Service, have joined Mazzotti's team in hopes of controlling, if not eradicating, the python population. But that's pretty hard when it's uncertain how many are out there and where they hang out.
So to answer several basic questions, the scientists hit upon an intriguing, although somewhat risky, strategy.
Last winter they captured four pythons from the Everglades, stitched radio transmitters onto them, and released them back into the wild. The hope was that the released snakes would lead the researchers to other pythons, at least during the breeding season.
Mazzotti calls them "Judas snakes."
It worked. Twelve snakes were captured, and a number of key questions were answered. Most pythons have been seen near roads or other manmade structures, so officials had hoped they had not ventured too deeply into the park. But that turned out not to be the case. They are everywhere.
"Burmese pythons are right in the heart of Everglades National Park," Mazzotti says. And they are wreaking havoc on the system, eating everything from gray squirrels to bobcats and threatening efforts to restore native species to the park.
Unfortunately, it's an ideal home for pythons. They are "habitat generalists," meaning they like to live between wet and dry areas, and they like to climb trees, and they are good swimmers, and there's lots of animals for them to eat. That's also just the kind of environment that appeals to alligators.
"So here they are, hanging out in the same places, doing the same things," Mazzotti says. "And on more than one occasion, several of which were witnessed by the public, they have gotten in fights."
Last fall one python tried to swallow an alligator. The alligator ended up swallowing the python, but the snake was too big to go down all at once. So for a couple of days the alligator wandered around with the tip of the python hanging out of its mouth until the rest could be digested.
Pythons are not venomous snakes, but they are hardly defenseless. They can kill their prey by constriction, literally smothering prey to death. And their teeth are something to behold, especially if you're trying to capture one.
"They have quite large teeth," says Mazzotti. "They angle backwards because when the snake grabs something it wants to be able to hold onto it and force it down and not let it out."
That's what makes capturing pythons interesting. Here's how it's done:
"You capture pythons by hand," says Mazzotti. "You cruise the roads, and when you see a python you grab hold of whatever part of the python you can, and hope you're faster than the python. You want to grab its head before it grabs you. By and large, we are very, very successful at that."
Mazzotti says he has never been bitten, or hurt, by a python.
Captured pythons are killed, but Mazzotti plans to keep some in his lab in hopes of finding a better way to manage the problem. It would be nice to know, for example, what makes one python attracted to another. Perhaps the right perfume would lure pythons out of the park and into a trap.
It's probably too late to eradicate the pythons, but maybe at least some order can be restored.
"Maybe we can't get them all out, but if we get them under control and they don't go anywhere else, to me that would be victory," he says.