What Are Invasive Species? – A Look at Burmese Pythons in the Florida Everglades

An invasive species is one whose introduction to an area threatens the environment, public health, and/or the economy. Invasive species are organisms (animals, plants, diseases, parasites, etc.) non-native to the area they are introduced. Examples include the Burmese python, West Nile, and chestnut blight.

Burmese pythons are a serious problem in southern Florida. But, how were they introduced? Why did they become an invasive species?

Also, what threats do they pose? And, what can we do today to mitigate or eliminate the issue?

Burmese python (Python molurus bivttatis) Photo credit: https://www.wildlifealliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Burmese-Python.jpghttps://www.wildlifealliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Burmese-Python.jpg

Burmese pythons were first introduced to the United States in the 1980s. They are native to Southeast Asia, and were imported to the US to be apart of the exotic pet trade. Thousands of these snakes ended up in Miami, Florida.

At this time, the snakes posed no real threat. But, very slowly they began to establish a population in the wild. One reason: some escaped from where they were being kept.

Another reason: some owners/keepers were either ignorant or uninformed, in regards to the fact Burmese pythons grow to become very large snakes. Being the fifth longest snake in the world, they can reach lengths of 18.7 feet. Not an easy animal to house, care for, and feed.

Therefore, it was not surprising when many were released into the wild. On top of the snakes who had escaped or been released, a significant event led to a spike in their population: Hurricane Andrew.

When the storm hit the state of Florida in August, 1992, a Burmese python breeding facility was destroyed, letting out an alarming number of snakes. These snakes began reproducing, vastly increasing the population. Today, tens of thousands inhabit the Everglades; maybe more.

A female’s nest in the Everglades. Photo credit: https://medium.com/environmental-science-department/disrupting-the-burmese-python-egg-laying-cycles-97ca1fd46264

Burmese pythons became an invasive species because of the harm they have done (and continue to do) to the ecosystem of the Florida Everglades. The Everglades span approximately 1.5 million acres, and are home to thousands of animal species.

There is no coexistence between the Burmese pythons and the other species, there is domination. They are apex predators, meaning they have no natural predators. Mammals, in particular are being impacted the most.

Marsh and cottontail rabbits and foxes have completely disappeared from the Everglades, due to Burmese pythons. At one point, raccoons, opossums, and bobcats nearly vanished, too. The balance of life in the Everglades is off, affecting biodiversity.

Efforts have already been made to decrease and eradicate the growing population. In 2017, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and South Florida Water Management Division brought about the Python Elimination Program. The program pays employees a base wage to hunt pythons, along with so much per foot of each snake killed.

Since 2010, pythons have been illegal to keep as pets in Florida. Also, the state has made it legal for pythons to be hunted on private lands without a license or permit.

Captured and measured at 18 feet, 3 inches Photo credit: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/18-foot-python-captured-florida-everglades-n400731

Unfortunately, the Burmese python population still continues to grow. Females can lay 50-100 eggs per year. Therefore, the more females eliminated, the less likely it is for the species to reproduce.

Scientists have considered creating a gene to cause the offspring of a male to be male, or a gene to cause female offspring to die. The gene would then be put into pythons before releasing them into the Everglades.

This seems like it could be a very effective method; however, it has not yet been developed. Till then, or until another solution comes to light, Burmese pythons continue to slither through the Everglades.

Sources of information:



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