Burmese Pythons in the Everglades

A just-released study suggests that Burmese Pythons have devastated Florida Everglades animal populations (e.g., raccoon and opossum sightings are down by 99%).

The pythons were originally released in the Everglades by people who had kept them as pets and their population has grown rapidly. It’s possible that much of the snake population was killed off by last year’s cold snap. However, as with cancer cells, a fast-growing population regenerates quickly unless almost all of its members are exterminated.

The cited article points out that it’s not certain the snakes are responsible for radical declines in small-animal populations but that no one has a better explanation.

The article mentions the possibility of preventing the snakes from expanding their territory but doesn’t discuss how close the snake population is to equilibrium in its current habitat. (Since a large number of prey animals needs to be around to support each predator, and Everglades prey populations appear to have been radically reduced, how close is the snake population to equilibrium?) Also, I wonder if the snakes will kill off the panther population by depleting its food supply.

Naturally, the federal govt has responded to the snake problem by banning importation and interstate trade of several kinds of snakes. This will have no effect. The snake is out of the barn, so to speak.

“Pythons are wreaking havoc on one of America’s most beautiful, treasured and naturally bountiful ecosystems,” said Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, whose scientists contributed to the study. “Right now, the only hope to halt further python invasion into new areas is swift, decisive and deliberate human action.”

I wonder if it’s possible to constrain the snakes to their current habitat. From the tone of the article, and frequent media stories about giant snakes captured in the wild, it looks like the Park Service is slowly trying to figure out what to do. Maybe they should try to eradicate the snakes altogether. OTOH, I wonder how much farther North the snakes can migrate before they get killed off by winter freezes.

I don’t know if there’s a moral or political point to be made here. It’s a difficult problem.

17 thoughts on “Burmese Pythons in the Everglades”

  1. Bosh.

    Introducing a successful new predator into a stable ecosystem will result in a population boom of the predator and a collapse of the prey. As you note, without prey there can be no predators so the snake population will collapse. When that happens, the prey will come back.

    For a large enough and complex enough ecosystem, a few oscillations and a rough stability results. And yes, the larger, established predators will have to make room for the new snakes and share the same productivities of prey. Perhaps the cougars will learn to like snake meat?

    A landmark study in ecology was a study on an island in one of the Great Lakes noting the swings in coyote and deer populations. It was a small ecosytem and so “undampened.” Artificial, contained ecosystems like that one some fools tried in Arizona a couple of decades ago, have a major problem in establishing stability, especially where O2 and CO2 are involved.

    The introduction of foreign species is often decried as disruptive but more complex, ie the more species, the more stable and robust the ecosystem.

    I, for one, welcome the new Snake Masters of the Everglades!

  2. Has anyone considered placing a bounty on the snakes? Florida, especially the northern sections, is filled with people who like to hunt. Placing a substantial bounty on each python killed would, I think, put a big dent in the problem. We’ve been using bounties to encourage the hunting of various species for hundreds of years. Hunters love a challenge, and hunting the python would certainly present a challenge. $250 per snake……

  3. Interesting comments.

    I wonder if the snake/prey population will reach equilibrium or oscillate indefinitely.

    The problem is essentially political. More people like bunnies, raccoons and panthers than snakes, so I think there’s a good chance the NPS will try to wipe out the snakes. They are already trapping snakes but, obviously, not enough of them to put much of a dent in the snake population.

    The bounty idea sounds good. Not PC, however, so I am skeptical it will get anywhere in the bureaucracy. The system is going to be loathe to allow individual hunters on park land. More likely they would want to hire a bunch of new govt employees to do it.

  4. Import the Vietnamese and Hmong – they’ll eat anything!

    isn’t there sone weird “walking fish” that was also “imported” to FL?

  5. The whole snakes-as-pets thing has always troubled me, and the goddamn pet mills are to blame of course. A similar problem are the tree frogs and other introduced beasts in the Pacific Islands. I’d imagine the bounty would work, but these things aren’t just wandering out in the open like Hogzilla, and are rather elusive. Perhaps a work program involving Florida’s always abundant crop of resident badasses,their inmates, put to work wading the Everglades, routing the legless predators?

  6. The whole snakes-as-pets thing has always troubled me, and the goddamn pet mills are to blame of course.

    Of course.

    One imagines that you believe McDonald’s is responsible for their patron’s jelly bellys and saggy jowls.

  7. Jonah Goldberg is on the case:

    “The Hell, I say: We nearly wiped out the buffalo in this country because a bunch of guys made money off of buffalo hides. Thousands of years before that, mankind eradicated the woolly mammoth with spears. Spears! Give me five thousand Ted Nugent fans and all the weapons they can carry and the waters of the everglades will run red with Burmese snake blood.

    … But, are you telling me that during a time when unemployment is outrageously high, the government can’t put a bounty on snakes and get results? I don’t know what the right number is but for the sake of argument if we had a hunting season in which you could bring in unlimited number of Burmese pythons for $50 per pound, my hunch is Burmese pythons would be erecting memorials to the great snake genocide of 2012.

    $50/lbs. is probably way too high. Those things are big. $0.50/lbs. is probably more like it. P.S. Wikipedia doesn’t think they can survive north of Florida. Jonathan, you moved to Florida voluntarily. Between Jan Schakowsky and the Burmese Python. I would have stayed up north.

  8. You know, this isn’t a problem in Georgia. My brother went to one of these, and was handed something that he assumed was “chicken” on a skewer. The first bite proved otherwise…

  9. They make fancy cowboy boots and handbags. There must be a couple of bucks in hunting them even without a bounty.

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