How Have Invasive Pythons Impacted Florida Ecosystems?

What makes a python reticulated is the complex, diamond-shaped pattern that runs along their backs. The word “reticulate” means “network” which describes their stunning patterns. The beauty of the skin makes reticulated pythons popular in the commercial skin trade.

Reticulated pythons (also known as python reticulatus) aren’t native to Florida. They are from the Southern and Southeast Asia area. The fact that they’re far from where they should be indicates a problem. Much like the Burmese python, the reticulated python is considered an invasive species. Their population isn’t as out of control as the Burmese, but it could get there, and that is what’s most worrisome.

To picture a reticulated python, think of a Burmese python, make the pattern on the skin that of scaley diamonds, and add two to eight feet to its length and ten or so pounds to its mass. In fact, the official world record for the largest snake ever recorded goes to a reticulated python.

The last thing we need is for that population to grow and beat out the native wildlife, causing an even greater disruption of the delicate balance we currently enjoy.

Who Found the 18-Foot Florida Python?

Two researchers by the name of Ian Bartoszek and Ian Easterling, as well as an intern, Kyle Findley, found the largest recorded Burmese Python in Florida. They didn’t just accidentally stumble across this python, however. They worked with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and used a system of finding female pythons via male pythons with trackers, and their hard work finally paid off in the form of 18 feet and 215 pounds of snake.

You may well wonder how a snake that is being actively hunted can survive long enough to get so massive. The answer is the same reason a non-native reptile species population can grow so quickly. It’s because the Everglades are the perfect hiding place for pythons. The thick brush, heavy growth, and difficult terrain are perfect for hiding and hunting small, unsuspecting prey such as marsh rabbits, native Florida fish species, and wading birds. Additionally, the Burmese Python has no native predators. It is at the top of the food chain.

History of Florida’s Invasive Burmese Pythons

Many python species have made their way to the United States as pets, including the infamous Burmese Python. No one is really certain how this particular python got such a grip on the state of Florida, but there is some speculation that in 1992, Hurricane Andrew destroyed a python facility, causing the source of our current dilemma. Many experts say that’s likely a broad, oversimplified version of what really happened. Others suppose that pet owners found their quickly-growing snake pets too difficult to care for, so they began releasing them into the wild, mistakenly believing it wouldn’t have an effect on anyone or anything. That was before Burmese pythons were banned as pets. Currently, releasing exotic wildlife in Florida can earn you up to a year in prison and a $1000 fine.

Regardless, by way of either accidental or intentional release, the Burmese Python was introduced to South Florida, where it quickly established a breeding population. Now, they are considered one of the most concerning invasive species in the entirety of Everglades National Park.

These ambush predators have been the cause of severe mammal declines in the Everglades, which is disrupting the very delicate ecosystem we find there. So far, no python elimination program has been sufficiently successful. WARC (Wetland and Aquatic Research Center) researchers are dedicated to understanding the python’s biology and ecology in the hopes that it will improve methods to eliminate invasive pythons from the Everglades before it’s too late.

What is a Burmese Python?

Burmese pythons are some of the largest snakes in the world, but they’re known for the way they catch and eat their food. This particular species is a constrictor snake, which means it will use its sharp, hooked teeth to capture the prey, and then it coils its body around the animal until it suffocates. After that, the python swallows its meal whole.

In case you haven’t guessed it yet, Burmese Pythons are carnivores. They eat mostly small mammals and birds, but the larger of the snakes might seek out larger prey such as pigs and goats. Occasionally, these pythons have been known to attack, subdue, and eat alligators!

When these pythons are young, they spend equal amounts of time on the ground and in the trees, but as they mature, the ground becomes their favorite. Why? Because most trees won’t hold their weight. Burmese pythons can reach up to 23 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds. Some of them are as wide as a telephone pole.

How Do Researchers Find Burmese Pythons Using GPS Trackers?

Originally, this method was a kind of give-and-take. Researchers would capture the smaller male pythons, tag them, and release them back into the wild. This led the researchers to females and nests, but it was frustrating to have to release captured pythons back into the Everglades when the point was to eliminate pythons.

The method is ever-evolving and changing as researchers learn more about the destructive snakes. A method that doesn’t require releasing eliminated pythons is tagging some of the native species that Burmese pythons feed on. Animals such as raccoons, skunks, and opossums are easier to catch and won’t damage the environment when released. The giant constrictors eat their native prey and the tracker along with it.

This has shown some promise, though it can be difficult to time it correctly since the python has to be dealt with before it passes the tracker.

What is the Python Patrol?

Python Patrol is a free training program that creates a network of dedicated people across South Florida who know how to identify Burmese pythons, report sightings, and safely search for, capture, and humanely kill pythons.

You can sign up without any prior knowledge or experience because they teach you everything you need to know! It’s a great way to get involved and get educated about the needs surrounding the Florida Everglades.

What are Conservationists Doing About the Reticulated Python in Florida?

There is always research being done into the invasion we’re seeing to help us better understand these animals and how to best remove them without causing further damage. Conservation agents are authorized to euthanize wild reticulated and Burmese pythons since they are restricted animals.

The methods used to remove these animals are quick, painless for the snake, and humane. It’s unfortunate that this invasion requires the removal of these pythons, but the FWC understands that, if left unchecked, the python population could destroy the Everglades ecosystem.

What is the Problem with Burmese Pythons in Florida?

Over the last decade, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s Python Research and Removal Program has removed over 1,000 invasive snakes with a cumulative weight of over 26,700 pounds.

The pythons in the Everglades are perfectly hidden, with no natural predators. They are not-so-slowly taking over the ecosystem and significantly damaging the population of some mammals and birds. The Everglades are home to a plethora of species in need of our protection. If the unique and precarious balance of this ecosystem is too far disrupted, it may cause irreversible damage to a lot of land and species.

Can Non-Contractors Remove Pythons From Public or Private Lands?

Due to the serious nature of the python invasion, non-contractors have been allowed to remove pythons from private lands (with the landowner’s permission) as well as some public lands. No permit is required for this action.

Burmese pythons are regulated species, which means they cannot be transported alive. Humane euthanization is required on-site to prevent possibly furthering the spread of the invasive species.

Where Can Selected Python Removal Agents Survey for Target Species?

Python removal agents are people who have applied and been accepted as specific Python hunters. They have independent access to the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area, Everglades National Park, Frog Pond and Rocky Glades Public Small Game Hunting Areas, Big Cypress National Preserve, as well as some other designated areas in South Florida.

Target python species include:

  • Burmese Python
  • Northern African Python
  • Reticulated Python
  • Southern African Python
  • Amethystine/Scrub Python

Who Won the Florida Python Challenge® Last Year?

Charlie Dachton, a novice python hunter, won the ultimate grand prize of $10,000 when he located two hatchling nests and removed 41 pythons. That’s a lot of pythons for one hunt!

What is the Longest Snake in the World on Record?

As mentioned above, the world’s longest snake was a reticulated python recorded back in 1912. According to the Natural History Museum, it was 32 feet and 9.5 inches long. That’s longer than a giraffe is tall.

For reference, the average reticulated python female is 13-16 feet and weighs 30-40 pounds. That’s still a big snake, but it’s nothing compared to the world record holder.

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