In the world of invasive species, there are a few cases that stand out because of the almost apocalyptic damages they are causing. I'm talking about the cane toad of Australia, the Asian carp taking over American rivers, and the quagga mussels covering nearly the entire bottom of the Lake Ontario. Add the Florida python to the list. Research by scientists at Virginia Tech, the National Park Service, and the University of Florida suggests that the pythons, introduced to the state over the last decade or so by pet owners irresponsibly setting their snakes free outside, could be causing a severe drop in mammal populations in the Everglades.
The researchers found that the number of mammals encountered during more than 35,000 miles of nighttime road surveys, plummeted between 2003 and 2011. The frequency of raccoons observed during that stretch dropped 99.3 percent, 89.9 percent for opossum, 87.5 percent for raccoons, and 100 percent for rabbits. Those are apocalyptic numbers. The plunge in mammal populations has corresponded with a jump in the number of invasive pythons — it's estimated that there are 30,000-100,000 in the Everglades. They can grow up to 20 feet in length and have no natural predators in Florida. Sure, alligators have been known to catch and eat smaller pythons, but they have also been observed on the losing ends of encounters with larger snakes.
As grim as things are, I take solace in the fact that the pythons are officially listed as "threatened" in their native ranges in Southeast Asia where they are hunted for their skin and as an ingredient in folk medicines. If they can be hunted towards extinction in Burma, there's hope that they can be hunted to extinction, or as close as we can get, in Florida. Slap a big fat bounty on any snake caught in the Everglades and let the hunters go to town.
Are you on Twitter? Follow me (@sheagunther) there, I give good tweets.
And if you really like my writing, you can join my Facebook page.