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Creature Feature: Burmese Pythons Prowl the Everglades, and That’s Not a Good Thing


A wildlife drama plays out as a gator tangles with a big Burmese python in Everglades National Park. NPS photo by Lori Oberhofer.

Breeding populations of Burmese pythons have been established in extensive areas of Florida. In vulnerable places like Everglades National Park, limiting the growth and spread of this ecologically disruptive and potentially dangerous invader will be a very daunting task.

The Burmese python (Python molurus bivittatus) is a large constrictor native to the rain forests of Southeast Asia. Because it’s got attractively patterned skin, has a generally docile disposition, and is fairly inexpensive to purchase (about $70), it’s been imported in fairly large numbers here in the United States. It is thought that there are at least 5,000 pet pythons in Florida alone.

Pythons can be difficult to manage in captivity, especially if they are large and poorly kept. Over the years, many of these pet pythons have escaped or been intentionally released into the wild by owners who no longer want them.

Breeding populations have been established in the wild in Everglades National Park and are thought to exists in various other parts of Florida as well. Florida's warm climate is similar to the one that this rain forest species was designed by nature to inhabit.

We don’t want Burmese pythons living wild and free in America. We don’t want them loose in places where they can get at our pets. We don’t want them lurking near our children. We don’t want them living in our national parks and competing with the native predators for food and space.

However, unless we do something to prevent it, it’s only a matter of time before all of these things will be true in at least one-third of the 48-state U.S. They are already true in parts of Florida, including Everglades National Park.

There is a good reason to be concerned about Burmese pythons living in the wild here in America.

The Burmese python is an impressive animal, and that is an understatement by several orders of magnitude. The Burmese python is the world’s sixth-biggest snake species. A python continues to grow all of its life, and it’s not unusual for a fully mature Burmese to weigh 150 pounds and stretch 16 to 18 feet in length. The largest ones on record are much bigger than that.

A captive Burmese python living at the Serpent Safari Park in Gurnee, Illinois, is the largest living snake on record. Tagged with the unlikely name “Baby,” this enormous reptile is 27 feet long and weighs just over 400 pounds. (If you’ve got a tape measure that will reach all the way out to 27 feet, run it out there and see if that doesn’t make you glad that damn thing isn’t on the loose!)

The Burmese python is not just fast growing and long-lived (typically 20 years or so in the wild), it’s also an efficient predator. And as they get bigger these snakes gain the ability to take down and eat ever larger animals. A good-sized python can kill a water bird, a piglet, a fawn, a raccoon, a bobcat, a dog, a child. A whopper is as big around as a telephone pole and can kill and eat a pig, a goat, a deer, a good-sized alligator, a man.

Pythons kill by constriction. In practical terms, this means that they bite their victim and hang on with their sharp, backward-facing teeth while they coil their powerful bodies around the animal and squeeze it until it dies from suffocation.

It’s a bad way to go. Every time the victim exhales, the snake takes up the slack, preventing the intake of a full breath. There is no escape.

The size of the prey that pythons manage to swallow is a constant source of amazement. The secret is in the amazingly stretchy ligaments in the python’s jaws. A python’s jaws aren’t hinged in the manner of human jaws. The python’s jaws just spread further and further apart as the teeth work the victim further and further back. No chewing necessary; the victim is just swallowed whole.

This thing is on the loose in America. Although breeding populations are thought to exist only in Florida at this time, the Burmese python is capable of surviving and reproducing in about one-third of the 48-state U.S. The southern tier of states from Florida to east Texas are in the bullseye right now, and a warming climate, coupled with the species’ already proven adaptability, portends an even larger potential range.

Wildlife biologists are working on a strategy to slow and perhaps reverse the spread of this invasive species, but it’s an uphill task. There are lots of things this snake does that makes it difficult to deal with.

For example, young pythons spend most of their time in trees. Have you ever tried to spot pythons up there in the branches? On the ground the darn thing blends in so well with its surroundings that it can be extremely difficult to spot from only a few feet away. That’s disconcerting. The Burmese is also an excellent swimmer and can cross water bodies of substantial size. Did you know that a python can remain submerged for as long as half an hour?

And boy, are they ever prolific. Females lay clutches of 30-50 or more eggs and guard them for several months. Only a small fraction of the young snakes survive to adulthood, but that’s still a lot of snakes.

The NPS has been dealing with pythons in Everglades National Park for quite a while, and the pace is picking up. The first one, a road-kill on U.S. 41, was discovered 30 years ago, and by the 1990s about a dozen a year were being found. The first baby python was discovered in 1995. The first clutches of python eggs and already hatched nestlings were discovered around three years ago. Python sightings in the park now run to about 250 a year.

Much publicity attended the October 2005 discovery of a 13-foot python in the park that had swallowed a six-foot long alligator. Swollen and sluggish during the digesting of this hefty meal, the python was killed and partially eaten by another gator.

No one knows how many pythons there are in the park at the moment. Some estimates based on presumed densities run into the thousands, but that's little more than a guess.

We’ll have more to say about pythons in Everglades National Park and measures being developed to control them. It's an interesting story in itself.

Postscript: Is an anaconda invasion on the way too? One of these big water loving snakes has been discovered already in Big Cypress National Preserve.

Traveler trivia, no extra charge: About 60 million years ago, a snake of nightmare proportions prowled the tropical forests of northern South America. Dubbed Titanoboa cerrejonensis by paleontologists, this 42-footer (imagine that!) dined on crocodiles and other large prey. It’s still the largest snake species ever discovered.



The Burmese Python issue absolutely is of critical importance and I'm glad to see it getting some press. The ecological damage is real already, with the potential to escalate exponentially.

All that said, I think your piece here borders on sensationalism in a few areas.

"...See if that doesn’t make you glad that damn thing isn’t on the loose!"

"This thing is on the loose in America."

So are European starlings, emerald ash borers, and marauding herds of feral house cats. If you're referring to the potential ecological calamity, then yes, this "thing" is a menace and we should fear its presence here. But it seems like you're playing to society's supposed innate ophidiophobia and that's not a good thing. Western diamondbacks are pretty dangerous too, and a bite can easily kill a man - nearly as gruesomely as constriction by a python. Should we support rattlesnake roundups where children may be present? I know your answer is no, so let's focus on environmental impacts and not feed a fear of snakes.

-Kirby.....Lansing, MI

$70 pythons can be imported as pets, yet people can't bring a bottle of wine along from their trips to Europe?
Looks like protectionism is rearing its ugly head...

P.S. My browser (for better or worse) only displays the upper half of the picture.

Kirby, I will accept your "borderline sensationalism" criticism at face value, but you and I are going to have to agree to disagree on the rest of it. I contend that it's not fair to compare the Burmese python, an invasive, disruptive non-native, to the diamondback rattlesnake, an indigenous species. You get rid of the former if you possibly can, because it should not be loose in the wild here in America. Period. You protect the latter, which has long occupied its niche in proper balance with other species that share its habitat.

As I was reading this article, for the first time I questioned the idea of "indigenous species." It seems that we often seek to protect certain "indigenous species" because we find them more desirable than, say, a big snake.

However, if the Burmese python does so well in the swamps of the southeast U.S., why not rename it the American python and accept its presence? Yes, we don't like the idea of a species being introduced in a new environment by pet owners dumping their unwanted animal toys, but what about the other ways that species can spread to new habitats naturally?

I guess what I am groping toward here is the idea that newcomers need not be badcomers just because they are new to an environment or introduced in a way that we deem "artificial." We humans need not always intervene unless the ecological balance will be way out of whack as a result.

You do not make a strong case for that here. You do make a case that this new animal is dangerous to child and man. Heck, I would not venture, nor allow my child to venture, into such areas because of the alligators and other nasties that already inhabit those swamps.

If it "does well", accept its presence? Let me see: American climbing fern, American swamp eel, American piranha, American walking catfish, American snakefish, American python, American anaconda..... :-) In a more serious vein, you make a very good point about doing a better job of explaining the disruptive effects of the Burmese python. (Weaselspeak alert!) I will be doing that -- also discussing control strategies and tactics -- in the promised second installment.

I guess this is my response to your list of "American this and that," from my previous post: "We humans need not always intervene unless the ecological balance will be way out of whack as a result." Some on your list definitely meet that criterion, from what I have heard and read (I am no expert). OK, I will read with an open mind your second installment about how disruptive this snake can be to the Everglades and beyond. That should include demonstrating how this new predator will be putting other walks of life out of business. Given the low survival rate of newborn pythons that you cite and the deteriorating ecology in general (a much bigger story) that may be hard to do, I think. Not meaning to challenge your expertise, obviously, just interested in a discussion.


I think I failed to articulate where I was going properly. My point was indeed that the Burmese python is a completely different case than the diamondback rattler. One should be protected and one exterminated. I was saying that sensationalisitc accounts of snake problems do nothing to help the cause of the snakes that need protecting. To many folks a snake is a snake and it's a scary, dangerous animal. Reinforcing a fear of Burmese pythons (painful suffocation, eating men whole...) isn't good PR for the rattlers in the eyes of 80% of the public that is ignorant of the value of protecting indigenous species. Let's discuss the ecological impact of invasive pythons without the lurid details of how they'd kill you if they chose to. That's all I'm sayin'. :-)

-Kirby.....Lansing, MI

And why shouldn't we know how the python would kill us? Man has survived by knowing how other animals, fowl, reptiles, etc., act. I do not believe that 80% of our population is so stupd that it will equate a rattlesnake with a python. Knowing actions and reactions has been known as survival of the fittest, and I for one, would want to know the actions of this python. Dottie F

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