Everglades pythons found with deer, alligators, rats in their systems



An examination of the digestive systems of 104 pythons killed this year in a public hunting competition turned up the remains of seven alligators, 50 mammals including two deer  and 38 birds.

It was ample evidence of the toll the non-native constrictors were taking on Everglades wildlife.

Each snake removed is no longer removing native wildlife through predation," stated a report on the hunt prepared by scientists at the University of Florida. "Even if each snake only lived to acquire one last meal, the list of animals protected by removing these snakes would be similar to the list of diet items found in this study."

In addition to the deer, the mammals included 11 hispid cotton rats, eight opossums, seven cotton mice, seven round-tailed muskrats, four marsh rice rats, three raccoons, three rabbits, two eastern gray squirrels and one black rat, according to the report. Hunters remove 39 pythons from Everglades

Python hunters removed 39 of the non-native snakes from the Everglades since Saturday, according to the latest tally posted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The birds were unidentified, except for the remains of a wood stork, a threatened species. Samples of the birds were sent for identification to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. And there were seven alligators.

Pythons has slow digestive systems, so the animal remains might have been eaten more than a week before the snakes were captured, said Kristen Sommers, who supervises the control of exotic species for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The pythons came from the month-long, state-supervised Python Challenge, which ended in February.

More than 1,000 would-be snake-killers participated in areas around Everglades National Park, the heart of the infestation but where hunting is prohibited. They caught 106 pythons (two were unavailable for examination).

Seventy were caught in the Everglades of western Broward and Miami-Dade counties. The longest measured 15 feet, far short of the record 18-foot, 8-inch monster caught near Homestead, but big enough.

The snakes were examined at UF's Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center. For the alligators, death came predominantly from the female pythons.

Alligators accounted for 18 percent of the females' diet and just 3 percent of what the males ate, according to the report. Since females grow bigger than males, they can eat larger prey, such as alligators, the report said. Males made up the difference by eating more birds.

In general, the pythons captured this year consumed more alligators than those captured in the 2013 Python Challenge. One possible explanation, the report said, is that pythons have been forced to expand their diet in response to a decrease in the Everglades' mammal population, a decline for which pythons are among the suspects.

Thirteen of the female pythons contained evidence of past egg-laying and more showed the presence of follicles that would likely have developed into eggs later in the year.

Reproductive data show that removing female pythons at this time of year prevents them from depositing eggs in the wild that would bolster the next generation of pythons," the report said. "When potential offspring removed are taken into account, the impact of the Python Challenge is much greater than simply removing 106 snakes."

No one knows how many pythons are in the Everglades. But estimates range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, said Sommers. We know they've consumed protected species," she said. "And we know we don't want them in our ecosystem."

They got here through the exotic pet industry, before the federal government and state of Florida restricted imports and sales. State and federal wildlife officials have blamed their arrival on pet owners releasing unwanted snakes into the wild, as well as the 1992 destruction of a breeding facility near Everglades National Park by Hurricane Andrew.

Their elaborately patterned skin has turned out to be effective camouflage in the South Florida wilderness.Having turned themselves into established, if unwelcome, inhabitants of the Everglades, pythons are unlikely to be eradicated, officials say. At best, we can control their spread and keep their populations down.

The state has more than doubled the money to fight them, budgeting an extra $1.2 million in recurring funds this year to go after non-native constrictors and large lizards, such as tegu lizards, a South American species that has established itself around the state. Among the plans is to use the money to put detection dogs in the field. They're able to find snakes faster than people can," Sommers said.

Tom Lori Published by Tom Lori

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