JAVMA Probes Whether Burmese Pythons Are Mere Hype or Slithering Destructive Force

Despite the string of national headlines, television specials, a federal ban, and grotesque photographs, it's becoming increasingly unclear whether Burmese pythons are permanently wrecking the Everglades or if they're just an overhyped nuisance. 

Earlier this year, scientists released a major study suggesting that huge drops of mammal sightings in the Everglades were likely because pythons ate all the fury little creatures. 

Soon after it was published, one expert said that the study should have "never made it to the light of day" and that there's no evidence the snakes are causing significant damage. Then we spoke with a reptile industry group that argued against instituting a federal ban for a problem that affects just a few counties in Southern Florida. 

Now, the Journal of the American Veterinary American Medical Association goes deep on the issue with a new article titled "How big is Florida's python problem?"

The answer, says Scott Hardin of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is nowhere near as big as the estimated 500,000 wild hogs running amok in the Sunshine State. Those beasts are apparently destroying everything from wetlands to farms, not to mention that they're "aggressive toward humans and are reservoirs for infectious diseases and parasites."  

Hardin says it's unrealistic that the snakes pose any type of national threat, and he tells JAVMA that the media, public, and politicians might be prone to overreact because, well, snakes are gross. 

There is something about snakes in general, and very large snakes in particular, that just evokes a very visceral reaction amongst people.

JAVMA looks into how the snakes ended up in the Everglades. A government report puts the blame on the pet trade, but there's also this way cooler though less likely reason:

One theory popular within the reptile trade but disputed is that Florida's wild python population exploded after hundreds of the snakes escaped from a facility outside Miami that was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

There's no clear answer as to how big the problem is. It's not like researchers can go walk through the Everglade's 1.5 million acres with a checklist, tallying up each snake they spot. Photographic and observational evidence certainly indicate that pythons are messing with the food chain. Perhaps one of the biggest points of contention is whether there are 10,000 of the invasive snakes or 100,000.

JAVMA writes:

Today, the giant constrictors are established in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, and possibly Collier County as well. From 2000-2011, a total of 1,825 pythons were removed from within and around Everglades National Park. Estimates on the number of Burmese pythons inhabiting South Florida range from several thousand to as high as 100,000. Additionally, a small colony of boa constrictors has been established in a park outside Miami since the 1970s, and there's evidence suggesting Northern African pythons are reproducing in that region.

Given that monster snakes make good headlines and that there's big money in the reptile industry, this debate isn't going to end anytime soon. 

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Chris Sweeney