The Misunderstood Python Hunters Saving the Everglades

If pythons are the snake that ate the Everglades, the apocryphal legend of their takeover begins with an appropriately cinematic opening scene. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew plowed into the state, killing 65 people and leveling thousands of homes, as well as—so the story goes—a Burmese python breeding facility.

The reality of their introduction to the area may be less exciting. “The scientific thinking, I believe, is that they were probably animals that were discarded by pet owners deep down into the Everglades,” said Steve Johnson, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida.

The population of Burmese pythons in the Everglades is impossible to measure with much accuracy. Since the first reported sighting of one in the wild in Florida in 1979, their numbers have exploded. Estimates from the USGS indicate there could be tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of them in South Florida. Regardless of their actual population size, their impact is clear: pythons have decimated biodiversity in the area. The hungry snakes will consume almost any animal in their path. They seize their prey using sharp, rear-facing fangs that are long enough to pierce a hunter’s arm. Then the snake coils around its victim, constricting the animal until it’s dead. Some hunters, to protect their lower legs from bites, wear camouflage-patterned snake gaiters, light armor that’s similar to shin guards worn by soccer players. But most go without, preferring intuition and quick reflexes over adding another layer of clothing to sweat through in the muggy glades.

To stem the tide of invasive species from the exotic-pet trade, the FWC holds amnesty days that allow pet owners to surrender animals to the agency without penalty. Although most pets that get released into the glades don’t survive, some outlier species like the Burmese python become established in their new ecosystems.

In this case, “established” sounds like an understatement. Pythons have taken over. Everything else has become prey. Since 2003, rabbit populations have disappeared from USGS study areas. Foxes, raccoons, possums, bobcats, and other species are all but gone. Pythons devoured the mammals and have moved on to birds, other reptiles, and possibly fish. The snakes can bring down animals as large as deer—which can either struggle and tear themselves away or become dinner—and even alligators.

Scientists have long suspected that pythons were consuming whole populations of small mammals in the Everglades and have made efforts at estimating the impacts. But exact population counts are impossible in such a vast wilderness. In a 2015 study led by Robert McCleery at the University of Florida, researchers translocated marsh rabbits into an area of the Everglades inhabited by a large number of pythons. At first the rabbits survived. Then temperatures began to rise, and with the warming weather, pythons slithered out of hiding and began to feast. In one year, they had eaten 77 percent of the rabbits.

Pythons may have even usurped alligators as the Everglades’ primary apex predator, a shift that could cause a trophic cascade. “I found alligators in them,” said Kalil. “If they eat up all the birds that are here during the year, they’ll just wait for the migratory birds to come in.”

One widely known example of a trophic cascade is the case of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park. The animals had been eradicated from the area in the 1920s. Over the next 70 years, the elk population boomed, devouring brush and trees, which caused erosion and many plant species in the area to die off, which in turn affected small herbivores. The ripple effects reached every part of the Yellowstone ecosystem. The precipitous decline in Everglades biodiversity mirrors the events in Yellowstone, but unlike its Wyoming counterpart, which began to flourish again after the reintroduction of gray wolves in 1995, the python takeover has no end in sight.

“Even now we don’t know how these changes in the mammal communities will translate into changes in the Everglades ecosystems over the coming years,” said Reed.

Without human intervention, these losses could be irreversible. Hunts are the best solution at the moment, although the numbers of snakes killed represent just a tiny fraction of the pythons in the Everglades. 

But Smith of Florida Fish and Wildlife said kill numbers aren’t the point. “The key is really to get the word out as to the devastation that the python has caused in the Everglades,” he said. That’s why the state rebranded the event to coincide with the Super Bowl, which was played in Miami this year. The FWC and the Super Bowl Host Committee made python-skin footballs for VIP Super Bowl guests and upped the competitive ante because they knew the Python Bowl would get people to talk: Look at those wacky Floridians at it again. 

“It has a lot to do with public engagement, public awareness,” Smith explained. For locals, that means encouraging public participation in Everglades wildlife conservation, not just spectatorship. For visitors, it means treating the Everglades with respect. They’re not a swamp. They’re thriving ecosystems that need to be saved. With all the public attention, the FWC figured, maybe onlookers would see past the purposeful antics to the real problem at hand: whole species of animals are vanishing, and the Everglades may never be the same.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), on the other hand, disagreed with Florida’s tactics, and it called on the Miami Super Bowl Host Committee and the FWC to cancel the 2020 Python Bowl, saying the competition glorified slaughter and that the souvenir python-skin footballs “trivialize the animals’ deaths.”

Rodney Barreto, chair of the host committee, found PETA’s protests strange, considering the animal-rights organization agrees that invasive species should be removed from the Everglades.

“We have great respect for these animals,” Barreto said in a letter to committee members, “but they must be removed to give native animals a chance at survival.”

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