The Burmese python, one of the six largest snakes in the world, was first brought into the U.S. as a pet but now threatens to take over the Everglades.In Asia, where the Burmese python is a threatened species, they are captured as pets and killed for their skins and organs to be used in traditional medicines. In recent years, they have become extremely popular as exotic pets in the U.S. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 6,140 Burmese pythons were imported into the U.S. and thousands more were bred in captivity in 2004 alone.The Burmese python can be easily purchased and can grow in a year from 20 inches to eight feet long. They can grow up to 20 feet, live 30 years, and weigh up to 200 lbs.Naturally, as these pets grow, they needed larger prey to feed on, from small mice to rabbits. Many owners became tired of their pet pythons (and their expensive feeding regimens) and resorted to dumping them into the Florida Everglades. These abandoned pets successfully found food, shelter, water, and started breeding.The Burmese python is native to South East Asia and is a carnivorous predator that normally preys on birds and smaller mammals. They capture their victim by seizing it with their teeth, wrapping their bodies around it, and contracting their powerful muscles to crush it to death. This hunting mechanism means that a Burmese python can eat almost anything that moves. Now that they have infested the Everglades, they may end up eating to extinction some of the sensitive ecosystem’s most endangered species.
The Burmese python has bred and colonized to the extent that it is now considered an invasive species. Other members of invasive species are the famous zebra mussel in North America and parts of Europe, and the brown tree snakes in Guam that wiped out 10 of the 12 native bird species in the territory. Invasive species are the second-largest threat to endangered species after habitat loss. They are defined as non-indigenous species that heavily colonize a specific habitat they invade and threaten to adversely affect these habitats economically, environmentally, or ecologically.Invasive species colonize so rapidly because they have no proper competitors in their new environment. In Asia, jackals, monitor lizards, disease, and parasites limit the number of Burmese pythons, but in the Everglades, once they reach up to two years old, they have very few predators. A single snake can lay one hundred eggs every three months. Once an adult, the snakes will strangle and swallow anything that lives in the Everglades. Since they began colonizing the Everglades, the pythons have risen to the top of the Florida food chain, competing for the top spot with native alligators.Dead pythons have been found with the remains of bobcats, deer, and the previously endangered alligator in their bellies. A 15-foot dead python was found split open at the gut with the remains of a six-foot alligator bursting out of its stomach. More concerning ecological cases have arisen, include one python being caught and killed with the remains of two Key Largo wood rats in its gut—representing one per cent of the 200 members of the species believed to still be alive. There is concern that one day the Burmese python will even kill one of the 100 precious Florida panthers thought still to exist.Burmese pythons, however, are usually fairly docile towards humans. They tend to lay in wait for their prey and shy away from people. The bad news is that now other pythons have started appearing in the Everglades, and they are not as gentle.A report released by the U.S. Geological Survey in the fall of 2009 identified two other python species, the Northern and Southern African pythons, also pose similar threats to the area. In addition to these are six other reticulated pythons, including boa constrictors and four species of anacondas that could potentially become a threat. The Southern African python has been known to kill small children.To combat this problem, wildlife officials are using traps and other eradication methods and are considering offering bounties to skilled hunters. As of yet, hunters are free to sell the skin and the meat of captured snakes (which can be worth up to $35 per pound) with the guts being kept for analysis. Scientists are also experimenting with ways to lure the snakes into traps using of pheromones as bait.New regulations are being considered to limit the amount of abandoned pets, such as requiring proper licensing and implanting the snakes with identification microchips.Let this be a lesson: if you’re going to buy a cool and carnivorous pet, go small. What are you going to do if it grows bigger than you?