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Snakes in the grass: Is the Burmese Python wiping out Everglades mammals?

Burmese Python pets that escaped or were released have proliferated in the Everglades. A recent study suggests they are behind the sharp drop in the population of raccoons and other mammals. 

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National Park Service Rangers display a 13-foot python to reporters in the Everglades, Fla., two weeks ago. Scientists believe they may be recording the first significant impact of the explosive spread of Burmese Pythons in South Florida’s Everglades National Park.

Alan Diaz/AP

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Scientists believe they may be recording the first significant impact of the explosive spread of Burmese Pythons in South Florida’s Everglades National Park.

A recent study suggests that the proliferation of the non-native pythons is causing severe declines in the populations of raccoons, opossums and other common mammals in the park. It may also eventually decimate endangered species of both mammals and birds.

“Before 2000, mammals were encountered frequently during nocturnal road surveys,” says the report, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “In contrast, road surveys … from 2003-2011 documented a 99.3 percent decrease in the frequency of raccoon observations, decreases of 98.9 percent and 87.5 percent for opossum and bobcat observations.”

Rabbits and raccoons were once described as the most common mammals in the Everglades. The researches failed to detect a single rabbit. White-tailed deer sightings are down 94.1 percent.  

The problem isn’t just a growing number of hungry snakes. Certain mammals native to Florida have no recent experience with large predatory snakes.

“For at least 16 million years, there have been no snakes in Florida large enough to prey on medium-sized mammals,” the report says.

That changed in the 1990s, when a significant number of Burmese Python pets escaped and/or were released in South Florida. By 2000, researches had identified a breeding population in the southern section of the park east of Flamingo.

In the years since, the snakes have continued to breed, grow, eat, and spread. They can grow to 16 feet, large enough to eat a deer and even battle the other top predator in the Everglades, the alligator. The pythons are excellent swimmers and appear to have used man-made canals to cover significant distances with little risk of detection or harm from man.  

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