Burmese Pythons Are Wiping Out the Everglades, Scientists Conclude

The Burmese python problem down here is a problem. So much so that there was, once upon a time, a state-sanctioned open hunt for the invasive snakes. That went bust. And now, according to a study published in The Royal Society this week, it looks like the Burmese python's quest to completely take over the Everglades is nearly accomplished.  

Specifically, the snakes are becoming the apex predator with no equal, and they are eating everything that moves. And this is not good.

The snakes prey on wading birds, rabbits, foxes, and deer while having no real threat themselves. The study says a group of experts ranging from the University of Florida, the Fort Collins Science Center, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released marsh rabbits into and on the fringes of the Everglades, along with radio trackers.

Within nine months, the scientists found that the majority of the rabbits released inside the Everglades had been eaten. None of the rabbits that were released outside of the Everglades was harmed.

The experiment had the rabbits released between September 2012 and August 2013. The study says the rabbits placed inside the park did well for themselves for a little while, getting acclimated to their environment and even breeding. But they slowly started getting picked off and disappearing, leading the scientists to confirm that the Burmese python problem is a serious one indeed.

Marsh rabbits are known to be extremely resilient creatures and, in normal situations, thrive and are able to escape predators. So the swift way in which the rabbits in this experiment were taken out is alarming. The scientists eventually concluded that every rabbit was released into the Everglades was found inside a python's belly — radio trackers included. 

From the study:
Our findings provide strong empirical evidence that pythons caused reductions in marsh rabbit populations [...]. Not only were pythons the dominant predators of marsh rabbits in Everglades National Park (ENP), but only one mammalian predation event occurred in the park. Outside of ENP, mammals (bobcats Lynx rufus and coyotes Canis latrans) were the dominant cause of marsh rabbit mortalities. The lack of mammalian predations of marsh rabbits in ENP was consistent with the reported declines of most mammalian species in the park  and may be attributed to direct (predation) or indirect (e.g. depletion of prey base) impacts of pythons on populations of mammalian predators.
More alarming, the pythons seem to be breeding at a quicker clip than scientists first feared. Last year, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida found that more and more Burmese python eggs were hatching in Southwest Florida. In 2012, researchers found a 17-foot Burmese that had been pregnant with 87 eggs.

And the snakes are roaming the Everglades eating not just rabbits. All manner of animals and critters have been found inside pythons, including raccoons and deer. Bottom line: The Everglades are a smorgasbord for the Burmese, and there isn't another animal that can stop it. This means that, unless the invasive creatures are taken under control somehow, the Everglades could be irrevocably damaged.

Between 2003 and 2011, a team of scientists reported a 99.3 percent drop in the frequency of raccoon observations, a 94 percent drop in white-tailed deer observations, a 98.9 percent drop in opossum observations, and an 87.5 percent drop in bobcat observations.

The Everglades is an already fragile ecosystem to begin with, and scientists fear that it's being decimated and changing faster than it should. 

For now, there is no real answer on how to fix the problem. The FWC says that if you spot one, call them immediately. And it's perfectly legal to kill Burmese pythons when you see them, though it's probably best to let the experts handle that.

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Chris Joseph
Contact: Chris Joseph