Are Pythons and the Everglades a Stand [Slither] In for All Invasive Species?

Posted by admin on September 14, 2012  |   3 Comments »

Along with other bloggers–most notably DotEarth’s Andrew Revkin at the New York Times–I’ve been thinking pythons as a result of the enormous and egg-laden female widely-reported as captured in the Everglades.  Revkin’s post discusses scientists’ efforts to minimize the effects of this particular invasive species in the unique and much-visited environment.  By this morning, Emma Maris, author and invasive species pundit had expressed a different opinion: Let the pythons be.  Another way to look at this debate is to substitute “Asian carp,” or “ Wakame kelp and Northern Pacific seastars,” anglers find washing up in Oregon’s coast aboard tsunami debris. In other words, invaders can change economic realities, and it doesn’t take generations to feel the impact.

Pythons are impressive

Three of 87 eggs from the Burmese python
Credit: Kristen Grace, University of Florida

This dialogue has not moved me past my open-mouthed admiration at the size of python eggs (larger than an old-fashioned meat ball) as well as the  87 eggs this 164.5-pound  17 ft. 7 in. female developed in the three months she was tracked.  In comparison, an average clutch of eggs for Burmese pythons is 40, according to Robert H. Robins, senior biologist at  the Florida Museum of Natural History. Just one more thing about the pythons that Robins explained: “The eggs are tended by the female, who surrounds them with her coils. ..[and] may employ ‘shivering  thermogenesis’ to regulate the temperature of the clutch of eggs. Upon hatching, the young and female part ways.”  This female, according to USGS sources, was recaptured and removed before she laid her eggs.

Is studying pythons useful?

The python was tracked with microtransmitter devices that recorded everything she did. In science, knowledge is power.  Revkin reports details from  Kristen M. Hart, a research ecologist with the survey: “The female was … in the wild for 38 days, and during this time her eggs developed. We did not know that she was fully reproductive when we put her out. We suspected she might be breeding this year based on her size and excellent body condition.” Robins also referred to  Dr. Kristen Hart of the USGS’s studies  regarding management strategies for the Burmese python. Robbins says that Hart is studying the Burmese python problem to curtail its spread. “Once a non-indigenous species is both established and widespread there is no hope of eradication,” says Robbins. “I cannot think of a single instance in the long litany of human-induced species introductions, resulting in a widespread alien population, whereby the invader was subsequently eradicated.”

At DotEarth’s discussion in the Times, Ms. Marris commented that since “pythons were likely here to stay …[and], since the Everglades will probably be underwater in a few generations anyway…we should focus on protecting areas uphill so the species we like in the marsh have somewhere to go.” The thought of pythons spreading throughout the southeast and southwestern U.S., as is possible without intervention, I have trouble agreeing with Ms. Marris on the “let the pythons spread” concent. However, I do agree with her that: “… But it isn’t the pythons’ fault. It is our fault for introducing them. ”

Python dumpers = ignorant law breakers

According to Robins, Burmese pythons have been released or escaped into the wilds of southern Florida over a great many years, likely as one unwanted pet at a time. Most python experts point to the extreme southern Everglades along the Main Park Road to Flamingo, near West Lake as where reproduction and the spread truly got going. Unfortunately, neither current nor future legislation would likely stop the dumping.

Reflecting our national tendency to use legislation rather than science or citizen action to “solve problems,” the Humane Society of the United States issued a press release on a related story, that 11-foot Burmese python is on the loose in Albertville, Ala. Of course, legislation described in this release–another ban on animal possession–originated in Florida.  Who can blame legislators for proposing to ban possession of  large predators? The problem is that we already have laws making the “release,” a polite word for dumping unwanted pets, illegal. Why add another law or regulation that pepole will ignore?

Florida Statute § 379.231 makes it illegal to release non-indigenous species in Florida, says Robins. In addition, Florida, state law requires that “anyone owning a Burmese python must possess a permit,” says Robbins. “Typically, folks willing to deal with that degree of regulation are among the most responsible owners/breeders. I would anticipate that the purposeful release of Burmese pythons is at an all-time low, but ..the damage has been done.” Robins adds, ” these snakes are firmly established and reproducing. Population growth is rapid,and following a hard freeze in 2010 that culled a great number of less-cold-hardy individuals, one can expect that the population will continue to grow.

Can pythons become the attraction to the Everglades?

“ Burmese pythons have excellent camouflage and are most active at dusk, dawn, and night when visitors are few,” says Robins.
Still, these are large bodied animals …abundant in the park and much of the wilds of South Florida [making] likely that visitors to the Park will encounter the snakes from time to time. In the winter, the animals are more likely to bask in the open and be more easily seen.”

Although most of us don’t depend on Eveglades tourism for our living, many of us are increasingly affected by invasive species.  The Everglades story, flashy because of the animal itself, and the biblical overtones as described by Maris, could be the story of the Oregon and New England coasts.

 

References:

University of Florida (2012, August 13). Florida state record 87 eggs in largest python from Everglades. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 17, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2012/08/120813155523.htm.

Marris, Emma 2012, August 17)  Emma Marris: In Defense of Everglades Pythons.Dot Earth New York Times. Retrieved August 17, 2012, from http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/17/emma-marris-in-defense-of-everglades-pythons/?smid=pl-share.

Monroe, Bill (2012, August 11). Anglers, boaters are on the front line of the Japanese tsunami debris field. Oregon Live. Retrieved August 17, 2012, from  http://www.oregonlive.com/sports/oregonian/bill_monroe/index.ssf/2012/08/post_43.html.

Revkin, Andrew (2012, August 15) Biologists Track Biggest Florida Python. . Dot Earth New York Times. Retrieved August 17, 2012 from http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/15/biologists-track-biggest-florida-python-a-17-footer-with-87-eggs/

Robins, Robert H. , Senior Biologist/Collection Manager, Division of Ichthyology, Florida Museum of Natural History (2012, August 14) Personal communication.

 

3 Responses to “Are Pythons and the Everglades a Stand [Slither] In for All Invasive Species?”
  1. Terrific piece! I’m the curator of the ScienceWire section of the Northwest Science Writer Association Website. ScienceWire shows off recent NSWA member work, and I’d like to post this in the next batch, in early October. Hope to meet you in person soon.

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