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How invasive Burmese pythons harm the environment, explained by a scientist 

A Burmese python is held during a safe capture demonstration where Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced at a media event that registration for the 2022 Florida Python Challenge has opened for the annual 10-day event to be held Aug 5-14, Thursday, June 16, 2022, in Miami. The Python Challenge is intended to engage the public in participating in Everglades conservation through invasive species removal of the Burmese python. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

In the Florida Everglades, Burmese pythons — an invasive species with a ravenous appetite — pose a risk to native wildlife in the area. But one way to tamp down on the species’ growing population is through competition.

The 2022 Florida Python Challenge starts Friday and participants are encouraged to hunt for the species. Whoever catches the most snakes wins $2,500, and prizes for catching the longest or largest snake are also available.

The animal is capable of growing to massive sizes: Ian Bartoszek, a conservation biologist at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, captured a python with a team of other biologists a few months ago. It was the largest python caught in the state, weighing in at 215 lbs and measuring 18 feet in length.

“Until that point, we didn’t know that pythons got over 200 lbs in the Everglades,” Bartoszek says.

Upon closer inspection at their lab, Bartoszek and his team discovered the snake had 122 developing egg follicles — a record compared to the number of eggs a snake can typically lay.

The team also found hoof cores and hair from a white-tailed deer in the snake’s digestive tract. To date, University of Florida researchers have identified 24 mammal species, 47 bird species and three reptile species in the bellies of Burmese pythons.

As an invasive species, the python originated in Southeast Asia with more than 100,000 of them imported into the U.S. in the late 1970s. Their strengths include outpacing their predators and being able to grow to a large size in a short period of time. As for how many are in Florida currently, Bartoszek and his team aren’t sure.

While researchers are trying to understand the life history of the python and determine its population size, Bartoszek says the animal is cryptic and hard to detect.

Burmese pythons are semi-aquatic creatures, and with Florida being in the midst of a wet season, this adds to the challenge of trying to locate them. Bartoszek and his team use radio telemetry to search for pythons. During breeding seasons, they radio tag the male scout snakes who lead them to reproductive female snakes.

“They’re like a magnet,” Bartoszek says. “That will increase our detection and allow our team to capture and humanely euthanize these animals.”

The python challenge won’t be a free-for-all: Participants are required to undergo training on how to humanely kill a snake. Bartoszek says the competition is expected to spur conversation and awareness.

“We’re all collectively looking for landscape-level strategies to counteract this species as it expands its range,” he says. “But right now, there’s very few tools in the tool chest to use, and that’s why the ‘follow the science’ on the issue is the right approach.”

These pythons aren’t aggressive toward humans despite their ability to consume much bigger animals, Bartoszek says. In his research, the snakes are either defensive or try to get out of the way.

“They are very interested in our native wildlife,” Bartoszek. “They’re not interested in us.”

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Jeannette Muhammad adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.