Burmese pythons turn Everglades into a buffet
The growing number of Burmese pythons in Florida's Everglades has turned the subtropical wilderness area into the reptilian equivalent of a buffet, with important native mammals as the featured dish.
In a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, researchers report that the giant snakes have put a serious dent in the Everglades’ usual ecosystem, devouring the wide array of animals that live there.
The pythons don’t seem to be especially fussy eaters, chowing down on anything that moves -- raccoons, opossums, deer, birds, even alligators. All have turned up in the stomachs of captured pythons.
The python problem has been growing for decades, scientists believe. A collector probably released some specimens into the wild perhaps 15 to 30 years ago; since then, the snakes, which measure as long as 16 feet, have proliferated.
The latest report is based on nocturnal field surveys. Before 2000, mammals were frequently encountered, but in the newer surveys, covering 2003 to 2011, the number of observed mammals dropped significantly. There was a 99.3% decrease in raccoon observations; opossum observations were down 98.9%; and bobcat observations were off by 87.5%. Scientists said they failed to detect rabbits at all.
Federal officials recently announced a ban on the import and interstate transport of Burmese pythons and three other nonnative species of snakes, calling them a threat to the environment, especially in Florida.
The impact of the ban was unclear, however, since the number of pythons has grown to the tens of thousands over the years, almost all having being born in southern Florida.
The scientists write in the new report: "Whether mammal populations will remain suppressed
or will rebound remains to be seen. The magnitude of these declines underscores the apparent incredible density of pythons in [Everglades National Park] and justifies intensive investigation into how the addition of novel apex predators affects overall ecosystem processes."
-- Michael Muskal
Photo: In this 2009 photo provided by the National Park Service, a Burmese python is wrapped around an American alligator in Everglades National Park, Fla. Credit: Lori Oberhofer/National Park Service/Associated Press