Burmese pythons in Florida

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

 
  (Redirected from Burmese Pythons in Florida)
Jump to: navigation, search
A Burmese python captured in the Everglades National Park, where the invasive snakes have established a large breeding population.

Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) are native to Southeast Asia. However, since the end of the 20th century, they have become an established breeding population in South Florida. Although Burmese pythons were sighted in Everglades National Park in the 1980s, they were not officially recognized as a reproducing population until 2000.[1] Since that date, the number of python sightings has exponentially increased with over 300 annual sightings from 2008 to 2010.[2]

Burmese pythons prey on a wide variety of birds, mammals, and crocodilian species occupying the Everglades.[3][4] Pronounced declines in a number of mammalian species have coincided spatially and temporally with the proliferation of pythons in southern Florida, indicating the already devastating impacts upon native animals.[2] Although the low detectability of pythons makes population estimates difficult, most researchers propose that at least 30,000 and upwards of 300,000 pythons likely occupy southern Florida and that this population will only continue to grow.[5] The importation of Burmese pythons was banned in the United States in January 2012 by the U.S. Department of the Interior.[6] However, the lack of effective control methods for the already established reproducing population necessitates better management of a potentially devastating invasive species.

The Everglades and Burmese pythons[edit]

An American alligator and a Burmese python in Everglades National Park.

The Everglades is a region of subtropical wetlands comprising the lower third of the Florida peninsula. Only 25% of the original Everglades remains, protected within Everglades National Park (ENP). The climate of South Florida and the location of the Everglades, surrounded by a metropolitan area to the east, Naples to the west, and Florida Bay to the south, make it particularly vulnerable to infestations of exotic species. Miami, in particular, is the hub for trade in exotic pets within the United States. Although the exact origin of Burmese pythons in the Everglades can only be speculated, it is likely that many were once pets released by owners that found them too difficult to care for.[7] An evaluation of the genetic structure of Burmese pythons sampled from Everglades National Park determined that the population is genetically distinct from pythons sampled in the native range, but within the ENP population, there is little genetic diversity. This finding either indicates that the python population is freely interbreeding or corroborates the hypothesis that the individuals originate from a specific source population, such as the pet trade.[8]

Estimating the population of Burmese pythons in the Everglades is challenging due to the secretive nature of this species and the limited ability to conduct traditional mark-recapture assessments.[9] Namely, it is counterintuitive to the primary goal of python removal to return captured pythons to the wild. Furthermore, the low detectability of pythons means that even if mark-recapture studies could be conducted, they would require a greater research effort than it is currently possible to perform to provide valid estimates. Pythons spend a majority of their day in hiding, whether in burrows or aquatic habitats, and one study indicated that even seasoned herpetologists showed only a 1% efficacy in detecting pythons housed in a semi-natural environment.[10] Consequently, estimates of python populations are wide-ranging from at least 30,000 upwards to 300,000 and growing.[5]

Spatial ecology[edit]

Several attempts have been made at better understanding the spatial ecology of Burmese pythons in the Everglades, including capture analysis and radiotelemetry studies. Since the recognition of the breeding population of pythons, researchers have made an effort to notate the capture history (i.e., date, location, and time) as well as characteristics (i.e., mass, length, sex, reproduction condition, and gut contents) of each animal to better characterize the python’s activity patterns, spread, and ecology.[5][4] Over 2000 pythons have been captured since 2005 including hatchling pythons, gravid females, and adults in excess of 17.5 feet (5.33 m) in total length.[7] Gut analyses indicate that captured pythons consume nearly any bird, mammal, or alligator found in the Everglades, including nationally endangered Key Largo woodrats (Neotoma floridana smalli) and wood storks (Mycteria americana).[3][4]

Radiotelemetry includes the use of small, surgically implanted radiotransmitters to track the movement patterns of captured and released animals over extended periods of time.[11] A 2014 study suggests that Burmese pythons have navigational map and compass senses.[12] In contrast to previous research that documented the poor navigational abilities of terrestrial snakes, the movement behavior of the Burmese python seems not to be random. The movements of twelve adult Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park were tracked after they were translocated from their initial locations. Five of the six snakes that were displaced 21-36 km from their capture sites displayed oriented movement by returning within 5 km to the original location they were caught. This homing ability of the Burmese python is an additional factor that must be considered in predictions of the future range of the python within the southern U.S. and the management of the current population within South Florida.[12]

Risk assessment[edit]

One of the most contentious issues related to the Burmese python population in Florida is the potential spread to other areas of the southern United States. A potential limitation to a species’ habitat range is climate. Numerous climate matching models have indicated that a majority of Florida and vast portions of the coastal southeastern United States provide hospitable habitats for Burmese pythons.[13] [14][15] The original model [13] only takes into account the fundamental climate space of the python and thus disregards other factors that could limit python spread. Furthermore, most of the data set was obtained from localities outside of the Burmese python’s native range.[16] In contrast to the 2009 proposal, the more conservative niche model identifies regions of suitable climate in South Florida, extreme southern Texas, and spotty areas across the Central and Southern Americas.[17] However, the use of this model has been criticized for the overfitting of data from excess variables and the misidentification of four Blood pythons as Burmese pythons.[15] A model corrected for these miscalculations showed a greater projected range of Burmese python climate match including nearly all of Florida, much of the lower Coastal Plain of the southeast United States, and southern Texas.[15]

A severe freeze in the southeastern United States during January 2010 provided additional insight into the threat of Burmese python range extension. In the wake of this extended cold spell, several investigators reported dead snakes coiled along canal banks and in outdoor enclosures.[18][19][20] However, numerous snakes survived this cold spell, potentially by using behavioral mechanisms (e.g., seeking refuge underground). If these behavioral traits are heritable, it is possible that the winter of 2009-2010 served as a selection event for more cold-tolerant pythons. This selected population of pythons would have an enhanced ability to spread northwards and extend the python’s invasive range.[7]

Invasive threat and impact on wildlife[edit]

The Burmese pythons of south Florida are classified as an invasive species in the area. Invasive species disrupt the introduced ecosystem by preying on native species, outcompeting native species for food or other resources, and/or disrupting the physical nature of the environment.[21] Several life history traits of Burmese pythons characterize them as a particularly successful invasive species. Because of their large adult body sizes and status as a nonnative species, adult Burmese pythons have few predators within Florida, apart from alligators and humans. Although hatchlings have an increased likelihood of being preyed upon, they are comparable in size or even larger than adult native snake species, and they quickly reach sizes that reduce their vulnerability to predation.[22] The high reproductive potential, low age at maturity, and longevity of Burmese pythons clarify why controlling the population through removal of individuals would be difficult. A typical female breeds every other year, produces a clutch of between twenty and fifty eggs, and can live for twenty years or more.[7]

Additionally, as apex predators and dietary generalists, Burmese pythons target a wide array of taxonomic groups.[22] Thus, they are not dependent upon a specific prey species. The flexible dietary requirements of Burmese pythons enable them to survive for long periods of time without food, but when prey is readily available, they will eat regularly.[7] Consequently, Burmese pythons pose a great threat to wildlife, especially mid-sized mammals. Severe declines in mammalian populations across the Everglades have been associated with the proliferation of pythons at both the temporal and spatial level. Comparisons of road surveys conducted in 1996-1997 (i.e., prior to the python proliferation) and 2003-2011 (i.e., after python proliferation) indicated declines from 88% to 100% in the frequency of raccoon, opossum, bobcat, rabbit, fox, and other mammalian species sightings.[2] These declines were concordant with the spatial geography of python spread. Smaller declines were observed where pythons were only recently documented and the greatest mammalian abundances were observed outside of the python’s current range.[2] It is unclear the extent to which the greatly reduced mammalian populations will disrupt the complex food web of the Everglades by indirectly affecting other native species.

Control and Regulations[edit]

Several methods have been proposed to control the thriving Burmese python population in South Florida because much of the python’s introduced range includes areas inaccessible to humans. Unfortunately, all strategies proposed thus far have resulted in limited success. For example, numerous people have suggested using dogs to detect pythons. A 2011 assessment of detection dogs as a mode of python removal determined that the success of a dog search team (73%) was not significantly greater when compared to human search teams (64%) in controlled plot searches.[23] Thick vegetation, which can both reduce visibility and hold odors, limited the efficacy of both human and dog searchers within the plots. However, the dog search team was significantly more successful in canal searches (92%) and was capable of covering three times the distance of human searchers.[23] Despite the potential of dog search teams to detect free-ranging pythons, several impracticalities prevent the widespread use of dog search teams, including the danger posed to released dogs in the Everglades, limited efficacy of chemoreceptive cues in the shallow waters of the Everglades, and extensive limestone substrate that would hinder movement.[7] The greater cost of a dog search team as compared to human searchers is an additional consideration.[23]

The Burmese python system also poses challenges to trapping efforts. Trapping, a traditional method of snake capture, can include both the use of a device with an inescapable funnel and a drift fence that directs snake movement towards the trap. It is crucial that drift fences are inserted several inches into the ground in order to ensure that snakes cannot bypass them, but considering the hard limestone foundation of the area, construction of adequate drift fences would be difficult. Additionally, a python moves infrequently due to its predation habits and thus, it is less likely to crawl into a trap. Finally, the immense area occupied by the Burmese python undermines the utility of extensive trapping. Trapping could be practical on a smaller scale if critical areas were targeted.[7]

Biocontrol, or biological control, of pythons has also been proposed by several scientists likely due to the low detectability of pythons. Traditionally, biocontrols use a virus, parasite, or a bacterium that is selective to the target species in order to reduce the population’s size.[24] If the pathogen is not species-specific, it could harm other species. Considering the delicate ecosystem of the Florida Everglades, using biocontrol methods to regulate the Burmese python could have devastating results for the diverse wildlife of the area. Although the potential for the biocontrol of Burmese pythons in Florida should not be discounted, additional research and careful deliberation is necessary before the implementation of such techniques.

Beyond the scientific community, the use of bounty hunters has received a great deal of support from officials and the media. For example, the 2013 Python Challenge, a month-long event with cash incentives for python captures sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, only resulted in 68 total python captures by 1,600 registered participants.[25] Such findings indicate that bounty control methods would prove extremely inefficient in the capture of free-ranging pythons and alternative methods are needed.

Hunting the animals for food is also not recommended, as many top level predators of the Everglades have dangerously high levels of mercury through bioaccumulation, with the pythons being no exception. Environmental chemist Dr. David Krabbenhoft of the U.S. Geological Survey tested tissue samples from a collection of frozen python tails maintained by scientists at Everglades National Park. Analysis of more than 50 samples yielded up to 3.5 parts per million of mercury - the state of Florida considers fish containing more than 1.5 PPM of mercury unsafe to eat.[26][27]

While an effective and practical control method for the South Florida Burmese python population has yet to be proposed, regulatory measures are in place to prevent its further spread. Recently, the United States Department of the Interior placed four additional species of snakes, including the Burmese python, under the Lacey Act provisions.[6] According to these provisions, importation of Burmese pythons to the United States is illegal as of January 2012. Florida legislators have also put into place provisions targeted at the release of exotic snakes into the wild. Specifically, in 2008 the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission instituted regulations requiring permits for boas and pythons greater than two inches in diameter, as well as PIT tags implanted in the snake’s skin for identification purposes.[28] This measure aims to prevent the introduction of snake species, such as the Burmese python, to other regions beyond South Florida.

Each year an annual python hunt is held in the Everglades National Park. This is better known as the "Python Challenge" in which contestants attempt to capture as many Burmese Pythons in the Everglades as possible.Competitors in the 2013 Python Challenge™ trekked through more than a million acres of swamps and sawgrass in search of the well-camouflaged Burmese python. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced the results of the competition in which only 68 Burmese pythons harvested during the Jan. 12-through-Feb. 10 competition. Just like other attempts made, this route to removing the Burmese pythons came with minimal success but is held every year as a way to create awareness and incentive to remove this invasive species from the Everglades. [29]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Meshaka, W. E. Jr., B. P. Butterfield, and J. B. Hauge. 2004. The exotic amphibians and reptiles of Florida. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.
  2. ^ a b c d Dorcas, M. E., J. D. Willson, R. N. Reed, R. W. Snow, M. R. Rochford, M. A. Miller, W. E. Mehsaka, Jr., P. T. Andreadis, F. J. Mazzotti, C. M. Romagosa, and K. M. Hart. 2012. Severe mammal declines coincide with proliferation of invasive Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109:2418-2422.
  3. ^ a b Snow, R. W., M. L. Brien, M. S. Cherkiss, L. Wilkins, and F. J. Mazzotti. 2007b. Dietary habits of the Burmese python, Python molurus bivittatus, in Everglades National Park, Florida. Herpetological Bulletin 101:5-7.
  4. ^ a b c Dove, C. J., R. W. Snow, M. R. Rochford, and F. J. Mazzotti. 2011. Birds consumed by the invasive Burmese python (Python molurus bivittatus) in Everglades National Park, Florida, USA. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 123:126-131.
  5. ^ a b c Snow, R. W., K. L. Krysko, K. M. Enge, L. Oberhofer, A. Warren-Bradley, and L. Wilkins. 2007a. Introduced populations of Boa constrictor (Boidae) and Python molurus bivittatus (Pythonidae) in southern Florida. Pp 416-438. In R. W. Henderson and R. Powell (Eds.). Biology of the Boas and Pythons. Eagle Mountain, UT: Eagle Mountain Press.
  6. ^ a b U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2012. Salazar announces ban on importation and interstate transportation of four giant snakes that threaten Everglades. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Press Release. Jan 17 2012.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Dorcas, M. E., and J. D. Willson. 2011. Invasive pythons in the United States: ecology of an introduced predator. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
  8. ^ Collins, Timothy M., Barbie Freeman, and Skip Snow. “Final Report: Genetic Characterization of Populations of the Nonindigenous Burmese Python in Everglades National Park.” Final Report for the South Florida Water Management District. Department of Biological Sciences, Florida International University, Miami, Florida, 2008.
  9. ^ Dorcas, M. E. and J. D. Willson. 2009. Innovative methods for studies of snake ecology and conservation. In S. J. Mullin and R. A. Seigel (Eds.). Snakes: ecology and conservation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  10. ^ Dorcas, M. E. and J. D. Willson. 2013. Hidden giants: problems associated with studying secretive invasive pythons. In: W. Lutterschmidt (ed.), Reptiles in Research: Investigations of Ecology, Physiology, and Behavior from Desert to Sea. Nova Science Publishers, Inc., Hauppauge, NY.
  11. ^ Reinert, H. K., and D. Cundall. 1982. An improved surgical implantation method for radiotracking snakes. Copeia 1982:702-705.
  12. ^ a b Pittman, S. E., K. M. Hart, M. S. Cherkiss, R. W. Snow, I. Fujisaki, B. J. Smith, F. J. Mazzotti, and M. E. Dorcas. “Homing of Invasive Burmese Pythons in South Florida: Evidence for Map and Compass Senses in Snakes.” Biology Letters 10, no. 3 (March 19, 2014): 20140040–20140040. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2014.0040.
  13. ^ a b Rodda, G. H., C. S. Jarnevich, and R. N. Reed. 2009. What parts of the US mainland are climatically suitable for alien pythons spreading form Everglades National Park? Biological Invasions 11:241-252.
  14. ^ Van Wilgen, N. J., N. Roura-Pascual, and D. M. Richardson. 2009. A quantitative climate-match score for risk-assessment screening of reptile and amphibian introductions. Environmental Management 44:590-607.
  15. ^ a b c Rodda, G. H., C. S. Jarnevich, and R. N. Reed. 2011. Challenges in identifying sites climatically matched to the native ranges of animal invaders. PLoS ONE 6:e14670
  16. ^ Barker, David G., and Tracy M. Barker. “A Discussion of Two Methods of Modeling Suitable Climate for the Burmese Python, Python Bivittatus, with Comments on Rodda, Jarnevich and Reed (2011).” Bull. Chicago Herp. Soc 47, no. 6 (2012): 69–76.
  17. ^ Pyron, R. A., F. T. Burbrink, and T. J. Guiher. 2008. Claims of potential expansion throughout the US by invasive pythons are contradicted by ecological niche models. PLoS One 3:e2931.
  18. ^ Mazzotti, F. J., M. S. Cherkiss, K. M. Hart, R. W. Snow, M. R. Rochford, M. E. Dorcas, and R. N. Reed. 2011. Cold-induced mortality of invasive Burmese pythons in south Florida. Biological Invasions 13:143-151.
  19. ^ Dorcas, M. E., J. D. Willson, and J. W. Gibbons. 2011. Can invasive Burmese pythons inhabit temperate regions of the southeastern United States. Biological Invasions 13:793-802.
  20. ^ Avery, M. L., R. M. Engeman, K. L. Keacher, J. S. Humphrey, W. E. Bruce, T. C. Mathies, and R. E. Mauldin. 2010. Cold weather and the potential range of introduced Burmese pythons. Biological Invasions 12:2955-2958.
  21. ^ Clout, M. N., and P. A. Williams. 2009. Invasive species management: a handbook of principles and techniques. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  22. ^ a b Reed, Robert N., John D. Willson, Gordon H. Rodda, and Michael E. Dorcas. “Ecological Correlates of Invasion Impact for Burmese Pythons in Florida.” Integrative Zoology 7, no. 3 (September 2012): 254–70. doi:10.1111/j.1749-4877.2012.00304.x.
  23. ^ a b c Romagosa, Christina M., Todd D. Steury, Melissa A. Miller, Bart Rogers, T. C. Angle, and Robert L. Gillete. Assessment of Detection Dogs as a Potential Tool for Python Detection Efforts. Rep. 2011.
  24. ^ Barratt, B. I. P., F. G. Howarth, T. M. Withers, J. M. Kean, and G. S. Ridley. 2010. Progress in risk assessment for classical biological control. Biological Control 52:245-254.
  25. ^ Coleman, K. Florida’s great python challenge is over; not many are caught. NPR News. Feb 16 2013.
  26. ^ [1]
  27. ^ [2]
  28. ^ Ferriter, A., D. Thayer, M. Bodle, and B. Doren. 2009. Chapter 9: The status of nonindigenous species in the south Florida environment. 2009 south Florida environmental report (Volume I). South Florida Water Management District.
  29. ^ [3]

External links[edit]