Squeezing Out the Competition

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Editor's note: This blog was first published on February 19, 2019.

Of all the problems plaguing the Florida Everglades—a century and a half of altered drainage patterns, nutrient-laden waters from sugar cane and other crops, political battles over restoration efforts—one stands out in the public’s imagination: snakes. The Everglades is infested with pythons.

As this article (titled “Snakes on a Plain”) explains, giant Burmese pythons can grow to more than 20 feet long and can weigh as much as 200 pounds. Most in the Everglades are smaller than that, but still.

Where are they coming from? People buy them as pets when they’re small and cute—well, as cute as a snake can be—and then release them into the wild when they grow larger and scarier. There are perhaps 100,000 of them loose in southern Florida today. They have no natural predators here and reproduce relatively quickly, laying up to 100 eggs at a time.

There are a couple of reasons to be concerned about this. For one, a python can kill and consume an adult human, first biting and then coiling around to suffocate the victim, and finally swallowing its prey whole. A python can dislocate its own jaw to accommodate larger meals and can swallow something that weighs as much as it does itself.

Usually, though, the snakes opt for something smaller and easier to catch, and this is a problem too: in the areas most heavily populated with pythons, the article reports, up to 99% of the native mammals have disappeared. Pythons will eat just about any animals: mammals such as wildcats, deer, raccoons, possums, squirrels, rabbits, rats, and mice, but also alligators and birds like herons, ibises, coots, and wrens.

The South Florida Water Management District is now paying people to hunt and kill the pythons. Bounty hunters receive $50 for each snake less than four feet long, plus an additional $25 per foot for larger ones. They’re also paid an hourly minimum wage. In case you’re bored with your office job, though, be aware that most of the hunting takes place at night when the snakes are active, and the work is hard. Several years ago, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held the “Great Python Challenge,” allowing just about anyone to come to the Everglades and hunt. Nearly 1,500 people showed up, but they didn’t catch many snakes. The South Florida Water Management District began its program in 2017, employing just 25 licensed and experienced hunters who have so far killed more than a thousand snakes. 

Several of the hunters interviewed in the article express regret at the need to kill the snakes. “It’s not their fault they’re here,” said one. Another notes that before he kills a snake, he allows it to bite him (pythons are not venomous): “It’s the least I can do,” he says. “It’s karma.” Although python meat is eaten in some parts of the world, the snakes in the Everglades have too high a level of mercury—the legacy of the area’s polluted runoff—to be safely consumed. Shipping them back to their native habitats, even assuming those countries would take them, is not an option either, because the US snakes carry pathogens to which their Asian counterparts haven’t been exposed.

Other regions of the US have gone to great lengths to rid their waterways of invasive species—notably the Great Lakes, which have lampreys that decimate fisheries, as well as Asian carp and zebra mussels. Are you aware of efforts in your area to control non-native animals or plants? If so, how are the programs being funded?

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