Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC) will wrap up its 2nd Python Challenge this week, with 600+ participants likely rounding up more than 100 of the invasive exotic snakes. This contest to raise awareness and assist with control of the Burmese python was initiated in 2013 by the FFWCC in response to growing concerns with the impact the snake population was having on Florida’s native species. The inaugural event in 2013 attracted more than 1600 participants and rounded up only 68 snakes, demonstrating the cryptic coloration and elusive behavior of the species.
The Burmese python is one of the largest snakes in the world. Adult snakes caught in Florida average between 6 and 9 feet long; though some get significantly larger, with the largest one captured in Florida measuring more than 17 feet in length. Burmese pythons are semi-aquatic and are often found near or in water. They are also excellent climbers and can be found in trees. Often cited as having a docile nature, Burmese pythons are popular in the pet trade. However, they are currently listed as a conditional species in Florida, which are species that may be dangerous to the ecology and/or the health and welfare of the public, and therefore can no longer be acquired as pets in the state. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) also lists the snake as an Injurious Species under the Lacey Act, which prevents the importation of pythons into the United States and also prohibits the snakes from being transported across state lines. Their native range includes India, lower China, the Malay Peninsula, and some islands of the East Indies.
In the early 1980s, a population of Burmese pythons was established in south Florida, mainly within the Florida Everglades, although individual snakes have been found near Naples, suggesting that the population may be moving northwest. Python observations outside of south Florida typically are escaped or released pets.
Burmese pythons have been reported from the saline glades and mangroves at the south end of Everglades National Park since the 1980s. The actual mechanism of introduction is not known, however it is likely that Burmese pythons escaped from a breeding facility that was destroyed during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. It is also likely that pet pythons have been released in and around the Everglades.
In Florida, Burmese pythons have been found to prey upon a variety of mammals, birds, and even alligators. Because of their large size, adult Burmese pythons have few predators, with alligators and humans being the exceptions. Their dietary impacts may reduce local populations of native species. Currently, research is underway to ascertain the impacts pythons have on native mammal species. While pythons will eat common native species and exotic species such as Norway rats, they can also consume threatened or endangered native species. One python that was caught on Key Largo had eaten an endangered Key Largo wood rat. Burmese pythons also can pose a threat to human safety, and may prey upon pets such as cats and dogs. These invasive snakes pose significant environmental, economic, and social concerns.
Interestingly, the goal of the FFWCC in hosting the periodic Python Challenge is less focused on controlling the numbers of snakes in the region, since that proves exceedingly difficult considering both the elusiveness of the snake and the habitat where it is found. Instead, the FFWCC is more intensively focused on raising the public’s awareness of the problem with Burmese pythons as well as other invasive exotics. From this perspective, they have certainly succeeded, garnering both national and international attention to the problem.