Python invasion slithering to SW Fla.
Cape residents already contending with nuisance iguanas and monitor lizards may soon spy a n exotic reptile of another sort.
As many as 140,000 Burmese pythons have wrapped their coils around south Florida, according to a recent report from the Jacksonville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
As few as 5,000 is possibly the more accurate count, said Linda Friar, spokesperson for the Everglades National Park.
The problem is no one really knows, Friar said.
“Our estimate is anywhere from 5,000 to 140,00,” Fair said. “It’s a best guess. They’re very elusive and no scientific count has been done.”
Regardless of their numbers, the python invasion is a growing problem in South Florida, she said.
“We see them as a significant ecological problem,” Friar said. “As you bring in species not endemic to an ecosystem, they challenge the ability of the species that belong there for habitat and food.”
Experts say the snakes are moving north. More than 900 pythons have already been captured in ENP and the breeding population is thriving.
Burmese pythons lay about 50 eggs in a clutch. Hatchling pythons are about 20 inches long making their survival rate much better than most indigenous species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 17,000 snakes were imported into the United States between 1970 and 1995. Between 1996 and 2006, approximately 99,000 more pythons were imported.
Pythons costs $20 to $80. They can reach lengths of more than 20 feet and one measuring 18 feet was recently captured in Apopka. Many pythons are released into the wild by owners who no longer can afford to feed the large animals.
Burmese pythons are fiercesome predators but historically they don’t pose much of a danger to humans unless a family tries to make one a pet, Friar said. A northern Florida 2-year-old was killed earlier this year by a hungry pet python.
“We have not had a snake-human interaction in the park nor have we had an alligator interaction,” Friar said. “In an area such as ours there’s plenty of prey. I suppose if they’re large and hungry they could be a threat. But we don’t feel it’s a human threat at this time.”
The pythons usually eat rabbits, mice and rats along with many native bird species such as limpkins, egrets and herons. But they’re not afraid to expand the menu.
“They’re opportunistic hunters and there’s an awful lot of wildlife out there,” Friar said. “We have found they’ve eaten small bobcats, wading birds such as herons and egrets and raccoons.”
The Corp of Engineers is trying to help define the growing python problem by using thermal imaging.
“Thermal images may be very successful at certain seasons and certain times of day for finding pythons,” said Larry Wright of the Operations Division. “Further testing will be done over the next few months to refine the image gathering data. Before we can control the snakes, we must detect them.”
Thermal imaging uses cameras capable of detecting radiation in living creatures based on their body temperatures. Thermography makes it possible to “see” animals and people not visible to the human eye. As a result, thermal imaging is used extensively for military and security purposes.
Five specialists from the thermal imagery industry gathered with governmental and academic experts Sept. 9-10 in Everglades National Park at the request of Jacksonville District Commander Col. Al Pantano and ENP Superintendant Dan Kimball.
Max, a 10-foot Burmese python born and captured in the Everglades, offered the first test for the infrared searchers. Company representatives searched for Max with mounted cameras on an extended scissor lift and bucket trucks more than 30 feet in the air. Max’s infrared image was detectable during the noon sun but images of Max were much brighter and more distinct between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m..
Governmental agencies on hand included the U.S. Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army’s Aviation & Missile Research Center, the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Geological Survey. Python expert Mike Dorcas from Davidson College, also attended. The University of Florida participated with three two-person teams with expertise in herpetology, thermal imagery and invasive species.
“We wanted to bring together as many technical experts and brilliant minds as we could to find solutions to the problem,” said Pantano. “We’ve surrounded ourselves with the right people and now we are discovering what tools are available to us to help us detect these snakes.”
Dr. Skip Snow, Everglades National Park wildlife biologist, in lab with captured Burmese python, an invasive exotic animal to Everglades National Park.