Exotic Consequences
Written by Keith   

For years, irresponsible pet owners – unwilling to destroy their too-big-to-keep reptile friends – have silently released their unwanted Burmese pythons into the Florida Everglades.  The pythons survived.  The Everglades now squirms with breeding populations of hungry snakes, and the exploding populations of this exotic species could doom other species.

In a story that gained national attention, South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) scientists discovered evidence of pythons eating alligators in the Everglades.  This was no small predatory conflict.  A 13-foot python attempted to swallow a six-foot alligator, and both of the animals died in the process.  See MSNBC

That was just one snake, but from 2000 to 2007, roughly 65,000 Burmese pythons were imported into the U.S.  The Burmese python is among the most popular large snakes in the pet trade, sold for as little as $20.  But the pet is an enormous responsibility.  The University of Florida, Institute for Food and Agricultural Science (IFAS) reports that “An inexperienced snake keeper who takes home a 50-centimeter (20-inch) hatchling is, within a year, responsible for a brawny 2.4-meter (eight-foot) predator.”  According to the exotic species control team at the SFWMD, there are lots of inexperienced snake keepers, because nearly 1000 pythons have been removed from the Everglades since 2000.

Perhaps these snakes are only a modest threat to the American alligator, a species that has survived the eons since dinosaurs walked the Earth.  But the pythons do represent a new top predator in the Everglades food chain.  And what a predator!  According to SFWMD scientists, it takes an entire food pyramid to make a 13 foot python:

Notably, the python pyramid does not include some of the other potential victims.  For example, one bird, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, is an endangered species in Everglades National Park.  While the SFWMD and U.S. Army Corps have implemented numerous management measures to control water flows for the benefit of the sparrow, there is little the agencies can do to prevent pythons from eating the eggs (or even the parents) of this ground nesting species.  Pythons are also excellent swimmers, and have been discovered on Key Largo, where dietary analysis established that the endangered Key Largo woodrat is among their prey.  Entire wading birds colonies could be at risk too, and now the federally threatened indigo snake now has a fierce competitor for prey.  See IFAS report

This problem could take generations to control, because pythons are highly effective breeders, with an average clutch size of 36 eggs, and they live 15 to 25 years.  Meanwhile, the resources to control the problem are not yet in place.  One off-the-record scientist, when asked what he was doing about the python invasion in Everglades National Park, answered honestly: “I’m watching them grow.”  Perhaps it will take a human death to change the situation, and that day could come soon.  Burmese pythons pets have killed their owners.  It is not a stretch to imagine a wild python killing an oblivious, sleeping camper or an overturned, waterlogged canoeist.  

Of course, the python predicament might have been avoided if something had prevented the irresponsible pet owners from letting Fang loose (or at least making them face consequences if they did.)  Unfortunately, the law provided no help with this problem.  Changes could be coming.  In the State of Florida, the Florida Regulated Reptile Bill (2008) requires pet owners to register “reptiles of Concern” and tag their pet with an identification chip.  On the Federal side, H.R. 669, The Non-Native Wildlife Prevention Act, seeks to Amend the Lacey Act to regulate the interstate trade in exotic pets.  Changing the law to increase regulation of the pet industry may be an imperfect solution, and more may be needed, but allowing pythons to swallow the Everglades is no solution at all.

Image Credits: Python eats gator from Nick Poore’s blog, available online here.

How to Grow a Python, from Dan Thayer, SFWMD. 

Python in Everglades, SFWMD, available online here.

Keith Rizzardi publishes a law blog discussing the Endangered Species Act at http://www.esablawg.com, and plans to appear again as a guest blogger on PawTalk.  He works on the Everglades restoration in West Palm Beach, and previously served as Trial Attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice.


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