An enormous Burmese python was captured last week at Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. The snake measured 17 feet long, weighed 140 pounds and contained 73 developing eggs. It’s the heaviest python ever documented in The Sunshine State, outweighing the previous record by about 40 pounds.
The majority of pythons captured in the area range from 6 to 10 feet long. In their native range of Southeast Asia, specimens have measured as big as 23 feet long and 200 pounds. Biologists were previously unsure if the Everglades had the potential to produce pythons of this size, but now it’s no longer a question.
“She is the largest python ever removed from Big Cypress National Preserve, and she was caught because of research and a new approach to finding pythons,” preserve officials said in a statement.
Researchers found the snake by capturing a male python, equipping it with a radio transmitter and tracking it until it found a female. This is especially effective during breeding season, which runs from January to April for pythons. The male in this scenario is commonly referred to as a “Judas snake,” a tactic that agencies have successfully used to remove other invasive non-natives like mustangs, hogs, goats and carp.
“The team not only removes the invasive snakes, but collects data for research, develops new removal tools and learns how the pythons are using the Preserve.”
Pythons have been present in the swamps of Florida since the 1980s, and experts believe they got there through pet owners turning them loose. However, populations really boomed in 1992 following Hurricane Andrew. As the storm moved up the coast, it damaged several exotic wildlife facilities that compromised enclosures and released a variety of invasive species.
Since then, Burmese pythons have caused chaos by disrupting the food chain. According to studies by the U.S Geological Survey in Everglades National Park, there has been a 99.3% decrease in raccoon observations, 98.9% decrease in opossum observations and 87.5% decrease in bobcat populations. The most recent surveys have shown that marsh rabbits, cottontail rabbits and foxes have “effectively disappeared.”
“I wish we could eradicate this species, but I think they are established,” said Cheryl Millett, the manager of the Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve, in an interview with the New York Times.
Officials estimate that there are about 100,000 pythons that call the state home. Game managers have struggled to effectively combat the growing number of snakes, but it’s not for a lack of effort. In 2012, the state employed “EcoDogs” to sniff out the invaders, but the program proved to be too costly. In 2013, 1,600 people registered for the first-ever Python Challenge, where prizes would be awarded to successful hunters, but they only killed 68 snakes. In 2017, 25 certified snake hunters were hired to capture and kill over 1,000 pythons, but this is unproven as a long term solution.
“We’ve been actively trying to educate and remove pythons for more than five years,” Millett said. “Right now they are considered a conditional species in the state, which means they cannot be sold or had in Florida.”
Although giant snakes get a lot of attention, the non-native issue in the Everglades is even bigger than most realize. According to a 2004 study, 26% of all mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish in Southern Florida are non-native, with more introduced animals than anywhere else in North America.
The state may have lost the battle to pythons, iguanas, snakeheads, tilapia, parakeets and over 150 other nonindigenous species, but the fight continues. Agencies also have their attention on a different war, which is stopping invaders before they ever get started. There are serious concerns that anacondas, mongooses or flying foxes could be next.
“It costs much less to prevent a species from becoming established than it does to control them once they are here,” said Commissioner Joshua Kellam, in an interview with South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Feature image via Big Cypress National Preserve.