Burmese Pythons In The Everglades
According to the ASPCA about 60% of households in America own a pet (ASPCA). Almost everyone who owns a pet loves them as part of their family. Be that as it may there are times when we can no longer care for our pet. Most people try to re-home their pets using websites like Craigslist. Others take their pets to the pound. Furthermore there are a distinct amount of households that will release their pet into the wild. Their thinking is that their pet will be free and live a happy life. This however is rarely the case. Take the ferret for example. According to California's department of Fish and Game states "Most escaped or abandoned ferrets either are re-caught or will die from dehydration if there is not a water supply available, or starvation if they can't find food right away." (DFG) This tells a tale a little different than living free and happy in the wild. Regardless of how many rescue groups tell people do not release their pets in the wild, it still occurs. While most pet species such as the ferret have a grim outlook in the wild. Some species will be able to adapt in their new environment and thrive and reproduce in the wild. When this occurs the ecosystem usually experiences a Trophic Cascade. One such case of this occurrence is with the Burmese Pythons being released into the Everglades in Florida. (Cubie par. 3) Due to the Burmese Python being an invasive species to the Everglades. Many Native species are losing their ecological niche and disappearing. Therefore the Burmese Pythons need to be caught and euthanized to prevent further destruction of this already fragile ecosystem.
To understand how this snake is creating so many problems in the Everglades you have to understand the shear size of the python. One of the largest snakes in the world, it can grow to more than 20 feet long and weigh as much as 200 lbs (McNally Par. 1). This makes for a formidable foe against the native keystone species, such as the Alligator. Fig. 1 shows just how big a
Burmese Python can get. As you can see this is not a snake to be taken lightly. One reason why these snakes reach this size is because Burmese Pythons are generalists. Which means that they can eat a wide variety of species in order to survive. Their prey is likely to consist of alligators, a wide variety of birds, rodents including the endangered Key Largo Wood rat, pets, and in some cases people. A person getting eaten is a rare case, but has happened. They are also known to now be reproducing in the Everglades and can grow very quickly. Officials with Everglades National Park, where several private agents hunt pythons on federal land, say the snakes could number 5, 000 to 140, 000. "They have huge clutches, 40 to 100 eggs, " park spokeswoman Linda Friar says (Nolin 1). According to these figures not only is there a big disparity between the population estimates; this also shows that they are able to reproduce fairly quickly. "They have found python eggs in the Everglades and also have seen hatchlings, which start life 20 inches long and often reach 10 feet within three years."(Cubie par. 3).
The reason why there are such large disparities between the estimated populations is because no one has a firm idea. All we know is that they are in great numbers and they are reproducing. This makes for a very dangerous new species to an ecosystem. Remember that these snakes are generalist and will eat anything they think will fit in their mouth, also including young children. In July 2003 an 11'2" Burmese Python killed a 15yr old boy. While the snake did not try to swallow the 5 ft tall 95 lb boy, his cause of death was suffocation due to the snake constricting around the neck and torso area. While reports said that the snake had not eaten in 10 days, it still brings up questions on why the snake would kill so large of a victim. However it is known that pythons and certain other constrictors will sometimes attack prey that cannot be ingested. (Kaplan par. 2-4) While this may have not taken place in the wild, it shows that we are on the menu just like every other native species.
Even more disconcerting expert Leroy Rodgers a scientist with the South Florida Water Management District says that the adaptable python is capable of expanding in other places of the country such as Texas, California, and New Mexico. (McNally par. 2) This puts even more native species at risk of falling prey to these adaptable predators. The logic behind this is that the species that live in communities and ecosystems co-evolve together. All native animals have their niche in their environment. When you introduce a species that is not native to the area, the native species have never come in contact with this new species, which leads to a recipe for disaster. What happens is the native species have no evolutionary defense adaptation to compete with this new species, so it is easy pickings for the new predator. A good way to compare this practice is by releasing a wolf into a chicken coup. The chickens haven't had to survive with the wolf in thousands of years and have no evolutionary adaptations to survive. Now you also have to apprehend that this invasive species has no natural predators to keep their populations in check.
Some past experiences with invasive species can guide us to what could happen if something is not done immediately. The Sea Lamprey that was introduced into the Great Lakes by accident is a great example. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the sea lamprey attach to fish with a sucking disk and sharp teeth and then feed on body fluids resulting in scars or death to the host fish. Niagara Falls had served as a natural barrier until the construction of the Welland Canal in 1829 for the shipping industry. This allowed the Sea Lamprey into the Great Lakes. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) This lead to the near extinction of many native game fish in these lakes due to the fact that these native species had to evolutionary adaptation to the Sea Lamprey. We are now spending millions of dollars a year to try and control these parasitic fish. Additional invasive species that have been introduced over the years include Starlings, feral goats, Zebra Mussels and the Common Carp.
It is also important to realize that invasive species can invade anywhere. Aquarium hobbyist may have problems with invasive species. If live plants are grown in your personal aquarium chances are that you will introduce some type of snail. As snails are hermaphroditic they only need themselves to reproduce. I have to constantly control the snail population in my aquarium, so there is food for my shrimp.
Currently some measures are being taken to control the Burmese Python population. Workers who spend much of their day driving, such as FedEx and U.S. Postal Service drivers, have joined the Eyes & Ears Team to call in sightings. (Austin Par. 6) The thinking is Burmese Pythons will warm themselves up on the road. So since these drivers spend much of their day on the road then it is a perfect opportunity to spot the snake. Another technique is captured pythons will be implanted with a radio transmitter. Then release the snake back into the wild. The hope here is that the snake will lead hunters into nesting grounds. (Burmese Days)
Associated Press reported that state legislatures are also trying to get in the mix to try and control these exotic pets. Florida wildlife officials are considering a ban on possessing several large, nonnative reptile species after a pet Burmese python killed a 2-year-old girl. (AP) They have also tried to push bills through congress. The most recent bill HR 669 Nonnative Wildlife Prevention Act, which can be found at www.govtrack.us, has harsh critics since the bill is very broad on what would be considered an illegal species. HR 669 states "To prevent the introduction and establishment of nonnative wildlife species that negatively impact the economy, environment, or other animal species' or human health, and for other purposes." (Govtrack) For this bill to pass into legislation a clear-cut list of species that would be illegal needs to be created first before any serious consideration. Furthermore most experts are under the impression that actions need to be taken to control these Asian Giants. However if a law was to be passed this could potentially create a black market for these types of snakes, and create a new list of problems.
While there has never been a bounty on Burmese Pythons, however if a bounty were to take place then better results would occur. One example of bounties being very successful is the well known is the story of the wolf. Be that as it may that the wolf was not an invasive species, it still shows how bounties can be very effective. According to the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, "The wolf was at one time, the most widely distributed large land mammal in the world...By the 1970s only a few hundred wolves remained in the lower 48 states, occupying less than three percent of their former range." This was a direct result of bounties being placed by the government.
While some might argue that these snakes were once pets and should be treated as such. There are several fundamental flaws with this belief. Almost all people would consider a cat or dog a pet, yet not all people would consider a snake a pet. There is also the fact that thousands of dogs and cats are euthanized every year in shelters across the country. There could be a situation where a zoo put in requests for snakes or rescue groups doing the same. It is not realistic though for these groups to be able to save the entire population, or even a significant portion of them. I would imagine that bounties on these snakes would create more jobs in the region. Which can't be taken for granted, especially in the recession we are currently in.
While bounties should be placed on these Burmese Pythons, they have excellent camouflage. This is one of the snake's evolutionary adaptations to survive. So attempting to hunt these animals will be difficult. The fact also remains that almost every attempt to control an invasive species has failed. There are cases in which some success has been made. Most notably are the feral goats being removed from the Galapagos Islands. (Campbell, Donlan, Cruz, Carrion) This snake is not only responsible for decreasing the species diversity of the Everglades, but aids in the destruction of the biological integrity, which is far more detrimental.
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By Matthew Howard - I am a father of 2 kids, and a Fisheries and Wildlife Biology student at Oregon State University. I am an avid wildlife photographer, environmental activist, backyard chicken keeper, and biologist.
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