The Burmese Python’s Growing Dominion in the Everglades

Emely Castillo

For decades, the Everglades in Florida has had a guest that’s been overstaying their welcome for the past three to four decades, and has been disrupting the functionality of the different ecosystems that enrich the sunshine state: freshwater wetlands, uplands and saline coastal fringes lined with mangroves. The invasive species in concern is a reptile that is one of the largest members of its kind, and native to the continent of Asia. It is mainly found in eastern India, southern China, and all throughout Vietnam. Reaching up to 26 feet in length and weighing around 200 pounds, the Burmese Python has situated itself within the famous wetlands located in the southern part of the sunshine state. These reptiles, for the most part, have been introduced into their new environment by uninformed citizens who either released them due to not being capable of domesticating the reptile, or they have escaped from the tanks their owners kept them in. Considering that the native Red-Boa Constrictor pales in comparison to the Burmese python, which weighs twice its size, its ascension of becoming the dominant apex predator was inevitable.

The Everglades National Park is about 1.5 million acres of preserved wetland that is found in the southernmost part of the sunshine state. It is not only made up of swampy wetlands, marshes of sawgrass and mangroves can be found there as well. It is one of the largest subtropical spots in the United States, just an hour from the busy bustling city of Miami and is famous for its diverse recreational uses. It is also where about 8 million Floridians get their water supply from. If that ecosystem’s service were to be disrupted due to this growing ‘pest’ problem, millions of citizens would undoubtedly be facing a water supply problem. 

With the Burmese Python climbing up the ladder as the apex predator, it has been recognized as a threat to the ecosystems and wildlife of South Florida. Mammal and bird populations have declined, both big and small, by 90%.  Wood storks, Herons, Key Largo woodrats, limpkins all the way up to the predators native to the Everglades such as alligators and bobcats, which are also  included in that percentage. Wildlife management has noted that these pythons have been expanding their domain over new ecosystems, but are hoping that they do not learn how to adapt to colder climates, which can be found in their neighboring states such as Georgia and Alabama. While they are not venomous, their sharp rows of teeth can be quite painful when they pierce through skin, and the strength that is displayed when it wraps around its victim and consumes them, is also a  concern. Complimenting those factors is stealthiness. They are excellent in camouflaging, making their detectability extremely low which prolongs the process for  hunters to capture them. However, the matter of chasing them is less likely due to the fact that they are categorized as ambush predators. Most of the time these cold-blooded reptiles lie in wait as they watch their prey prowl around and then expel a large burst of energy using their ‘surprise springing attack’ to capture their meals. Armed with this knowledge, hunters have been trained to tire them by pulling the tail repeatedly until it reaches a point of exhaustion, enough for them to get a chance to capture and remove the python.

There have been immense efforts of trying to dwindle the numbers of these large species of reptile, however it has been proven to be difficult due to it being a decades-long problem. A contributing factor for this is  that female Burmese Pythons are able to lay 35-100 eggs at a time, therefore when hunters eliminate one python, there are 35-100 more remaining. The removal of these reptiles is being carried out by hired hunters and trained citizens on the behalf of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission  (FWC) and South Florida Water Management (SFWM) under the approval and leadership of the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. They have launched a bounty program dedicated to eliminating the burmese pythons in the Everglades in order to tackle the rapid population increase. In 2008, the FWC issued and initiated regulations of distributing permits to those containing boas and pythons that reach a width greater than 2 inches in diameter. Furthermore, the Conservancy of South Florida has consulted with biologists who utilize radio technology. This involves the tagging of a male python,  releasing it back into the wild, and following its trail back to a possible nesting ground during breeding season. However, this is not a burden only the Burmese will have to bear. There have been other species of snakes that are rising up in the ranks such as the Green Anaconda and the African Rock Python, both native to South America and Sub-saharan Africa respectively. 

With this in mind, as of January 2012, the United States has enacted legislation that coincides with the Lacey Act of 1900 where it is illegal to import the Burmese Python. The Lacey Act of 1900 was created by John F. Lacey, stating a conservation law that prohibits the trading, possessing, transporting or selling of any wildlife within the borders of the United States. This act was initially passed in order to preserve species endangered by poaching and the overhunting of birds, but is now mainly used to help prevent the importing and exporting of non-native species from other countries and continents around the world into America. While this is still an issue today by stubborn, irresponsible people, one cannot catch them all, just as our elite hunters cannot catch every snake within the Everglades.

The Burmese Python will continue becoming a sincere threat to the ecosystem of the Everglades according to environmental scientists. With these rapidly-breeding organisms they have estimated the population of this python to be 300,000 or more. However due to the low detectability, it is difficult to confidently state exactly what their numbers are. This is a problem that will only continue to grow and further disrupt the ecosystem by causing over-competition between predators and their food supply. Biodiversity will decline from the lack of variation of species, and mass extinctions of mammals, fish, birds and even plants will be inevitable.  While we can continue winning several battles, winning the war will unfortunately be difficult. But with enough reinforcements, such as the support of the governor, wildlife management and the public, it will take a village to help make things right and restore the ecosystem to its balanced state once more.

Sources: Everglades CISMA, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, The Nature Conservancy, National Park Service