Whit Gibbons

Whit Gibbons

Last month I received a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission report. The FWC Python Action Team and the governor of Florida were rejoicing over the program’s removal of the 500th Burmese python from the wild. The snake was almost 10 feet long, a bit above average size for others previously captured. The current record for a python in Florida is almost 18 feet. In the giant snake’s native Asia, the record is over 25 feet.

I sent back a four-word email. “Only 999,500 to go.”

My comment based on 1 million invasive Burmese pythons was hyperbole, an estimate too high for the number now inhabiting the Everglades and other untamed parts of subtropical southern Florida. Most experts put the number around 100,000, which should make everyone feel much more comfortable – only 99,500 to go. Catching a few pythons here and there each year will reduce the population size of the big snakes only a trivial amount. Large females lay up to 100 eggs. The first half dozen successful hatches have already replaced the 500 removed.

One approach used to remove pythons is paying snake hunters, professionals or amateurs, to find them. Snake-hunting dogs have also been used, which almost seems like using live bait to catch a fish. The use of Judas snakes is another technique. A Judas snake is a male into which a small radio transmitter has been inserted to track its location. Judas snakes are followed during the winter and spring mating season as they seek out females. The betrayed female can then be removed from the population. You do your own math. By my estimate, a Judas snake must find about 50 snakes a year to make up for one female it doesn’t find, which then lays 100 eggs, half of which are females, and so on and so on.

Touting python hunts that are supported by state funds may be an effective public relations tactic: “At least we’re doing something.” But the pythons are winning. Efforts to control the increase in python numbers and their persistence have been ineffective. The statistics are not encouraging for the home team. Increasing public awareness of these gigantic, nonnative snakes that now thrive in southern Florida and consume astonishingly high numbers of native wildlife makes for appropriate environmental education. It does not, however, increase a snake wrangler’s odds on the playing field of the Everglades. A recent cadre of snake hunters eliminated fewer than 200 pythons in one year. 

I am asked several times each year if Burmese pythons are likely to become established in Alabama and Georgia, the states contiguous to Florida, or in warm regions of other southern states. A python could be found in any state as the result of a python jailbreak from an inattentive owner. Recently, reports of a python on the lam have come in from Tuscaloosa, Ala., Morgantown, W.Va., and Beech Grove, Ind. In such situations, while the owner is often located, the escapee may not be. The climate along the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts is hospitable enough for the snakes to survive through summer and even longer during mild winters. If enough free-ranging snakes are around, they will find each other and mate. A recent and disquieting discovery is that some giant snakes are parthenogenic, meaning females can reproduce without a male. If female Burmese pythons can achieve this biological triumph, their odds of inhabiting the rest of Florida and nearby states, at least on a temporary basis, seems like a reasonable expectation, especially as climates become warmer.

The odds of ridding Florida of pythons are about the same as seeing the eradication of unwelcome invaders from other lands, such as cockroaches, fire ants and Norway rats. As I have said before, it’s time to accept Burmese pythons as permanent residents in the United States. Let’s move on to more pressing environmental problems, ones where we can make a real difference.

​Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Send environmental questions to ecoviews@gmail.com.