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Ground Zero for Burmese Pythons - Right Here in the USA

August 05, 2014

Story at-a-glance

  • A new study suggests that the Burmese python, one of the world's largest snakes, has the ability to find its way home from long distances. Researchers discovered that even when the snakes are relocated over 20 miles from their home base, they have the ability to find their way back, traveling in an almost straight line from point of release back to point of capture.
  • This is an astounding finding, but unfortunately, it makes the snakes' invasive presence in south Florida's Everglades National Park an even greater challenge. The python's native habitat is Southeast Asia, but for about a dozen years, a large and growing population of snakes has been living in south Florida, probably a result of deliberate or accidental release by pet snake owners.
  • The pythons are invading the food chain in Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, preying on native species large and small. The snakes have significantly reduced populations of native animals like bobcats, opossums, rabbits and raccoons.
  • According to the National Park Service, pythons are seriously impacting the natural order of south Florida's ecological communities, and if they continue to proliferate it will further threaten many already endangered plants and animals.
  • While the Burmese python is now a permanent invasive species in south Florida, you can do your part to prevent similar occurrences in the future by taking care not to release non-native animals into the wild, and by refusing to support the exotic pet trade.

By Dr. Becker

New research shows that Burmese pythons come equipped with built-in compasses that allow them to find their way back home from long distances.1 While this is an intriguing finding, it could pose a unique threat in south Florida.

Pythons, which can grow to over 18 feet in length, are among the world's largest snakes. Their native habitat is Southeast Asia, but since about 2000 there has also been a thriving population in south Florida's Everglades National Park – probably a result of dumping by pet snake owners. According to the National Park Service, over 2,000 pythons have been removed from the area since 2002, which is likely just a fraction of the total population.2

The Florida pythons have adapted quite well to their new habitat. So well, in fact, that the snakes have become a significant threat to several species they prey upon. If the pythons do indeed have homing skills as the new study suggests, it means they have the potential to travel great distances from their home base.

"In short, the snakes could be poised to take over much of south Florida," says Discovery News.

Burmese Pythons Come Equipped with Navigational Gear

A team of scientists captured six pythons in the Everglades and transported them to locations ranging between 13 and 22 miles away. The snakes received implanted radio trackers so researchers could monitor their movements with GPS readings that measured direction and speed.

Incredibly, as soon as they were released all six pythons immediately set out in the direction of the location of their capture, and five of the six turned up within three miles of the exact spot where they were picked up. Number six veered off course a bit, but not until it was relatively close to its destination.

It took the snakes between 94 and 296 days to get back to their capture location, all the while exhibiting "high motivation to reach home locations," according to the researchers. During their travels, the pythons maintained their bearings as though they were consulting some sort of internal map. They also moved straighter and faster than a group of control snakes that were not relocated, and "displayed movement path structure indicative of oriented movement."

"This is way more sophisticated behavior than we've been attributing to them. It's one of those things where nature makes us go 'wow','' said study co-author Frank Mazzotti of the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center.

Pythons in the Everglades Are Reducing Populations of Native Animals

The researchers don't know exactly how the pythons were able to make their way back home, but they suspect the snakes used their sense of smell, the stars, light, or even some kind of magnetic force to navigate. And while the discovery that pythons seem to possess their own GPS equipment is a breakthrough of sorts, it also increases concern about the snake's presence as an invasive species in south Florida.

The pythons are raiding the food chain in both Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. They are able to kill and eat animals ranging in size from rabbits to alligators, and even large deer. The presence of the snakes has reduced populations of native species like bobcats, opossums, rabbits and raccoons.

According to the National Park Service, by preying on native wildlife and also competing with other native predators, pythons are seriously impacting the natural order of south Florida's ecological communities. If the pythons continue to proliferate, and if other foreign species continue to be introduced to the area, it will further threaten many already endangered plants and animals.

The NPS continues to work with partner agencies to evaluate potential methods for controlling and managing the existing population of pythons. In 2012, the U.S. government made it illegal to import four exotic snake species, including the Burmese python, the yellow anaconda, and north and south African python.

What You Can Do to Help

The Burmese pythons in south Florida are here to stay, but as an individual you can make a difference for the future by taking care to never release non-native animals into the wild.

And you can also take personal action against the exotic pet trade by:

  • Refusing to acquire an exotic animal of any kind, from any source
  • Boycotting stores and websites that sell exotic pets
  • Driving right by roadside zoos without stopping
  • Talking to your family and friends about what happens to exotic animals in the pet trade

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Sources and References

  • 1 Biology Letters, March 2014, Vol. 10, No. 3
  • 2
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