Hybrid man-eating pythons? Florida is on alert.
Scientists worry that two species of nonnative pythons now near the Everglades could breed, yielding more aggressive offspring.
George Skene / Orlando Sentinel / AP
In an case of real life imitating Hollywood, the US scientific community is increasingly concerned that two nonnative python breeds currently slithering free in south Florida could morph into a giant man-eating swamp coil.
The capture of five African rock pythons recently near an Everglades already teeming with the gentler Burmese pythons has scientists worried about so-called "hybrid vigor" – a phenomenon that occurs when interbreeding uncorks volatile recessive genes, passing traits such as aggression onto the offspring. Think Africanized bees.
The two species have interbred in captivity. While Burmese pythons aren't known to eat people in their native habitat, the African rock python, unfortunately, has been known to do just that.
The rock python "is mean right out of the egg, and they don't ever tame down," says Kenneth Krysko, a senior biologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
Whether African rock pythons and Burmese pythons could produce fertile offspring remains a big question. But the looming possibility of "hybrid vigor" between nonnative species means the Everglades are turning into a herpetologist's version of Dr. Frankenstein's lab.
"It's a big petri dish," says Kevin Enge, an invasive species expert with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Gainesville. "You keep introducing things and, yeah, you don't know what's going to turn out."
This summer, Florida began a python bounty hunt after the population of illegally introduced Burmese pythons exploded and their range expanded. So far, 18 snakes have been captured under the new hunt, which got approval from the US Department of Interior after a toddler was killed by a released python this spring.