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How Burmese Pythons Took Over the Florida Everglades

February 20, 2020 in History

By Adam Janos

They’ve eaten practically every mammal in sight—and have no natural predators.

Starting in the 1980s, the swamps of the South Florida Everglades have been overrun by one of the most damaging invasive species the region has ever seen: the Burmese python. These massive snakes, which can grow to 20 feet long or more, with telephone-pole-sized girths, have all but decimated the region’s small- and medium-sized mammal population, wreaking havoc with the area’s ecosystem.

That ecosystem, the Florida Everglades, is the largest national park east of California, commanding some 1.5 million acres—or about one-and-a-half times the size of Rhode Island. Save for a few bisecting roadways (US 41 and I-75), these desolate subtropical swamps are detached from the grid of American civilization. It’s hard to fathom that downtown Miami sits just 30 miles away from the vast wetlands that have become an adopted home for (at least) tens of thousands of huge snakes.

Because female pythons can lay 50-100 eggs per year—and the creatures have no natural predator in the region—their threat continues to escalate.

How the Burmese python took over Florida

A young Burmese Python in Homestead, Florida.

Native to Southeast Asia, pythons were first brought to the United States as exotic pets. When the exotic pet trade boomed in the 1980s, Miami became host to thousands of such snakes.

Because pythons can grow to such unmanageable sizes, it was inevitable that some irresponsible owners would release the snakes into the wild. But most experts believe the pythons established a reproducing population in the Everglades sometime after Hurricane Andrew—a category 5 storm that devastated the state in August 1992. It was during that storm that a python breeding facility was destroyed, releasing countless snakes into the nearby swamps.

Today, authorities have no idea how many pythons occupy the area, in large part because they Everglades—in their vast inaccessibility—are so hard to conduct surveys in. And the mottled brown snakes blend well into the scrubby environment.

“It could be tens of thousands, or it could be hundreds of thousands,” says Rory Feeney, the bureau chief of land resources at the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD)—a federal agency that helps spearhead Everglades conservation efforts. The agency, Feeney adds, has been actively “dealing with invasive pythons for over a decade.”

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