A new study finds that Florida’s wetlands and the mammals living in them are facing a growing threat.
The study finds that Burmese pythons are choking off life at an astounding rate, putting additional pressure on Florida lawmakers to confront the growing problem. Released Monday, scientists noted that a number of native mammals are facing an growing threat in the form of the Burmese python, which has likely eliminated upwards of 98 percent of some creatures.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study finds that sightings of medium-size mammals are down dramatically in areas where the number of pythons and other large, non-native snakes have exploded in recent years. Scientists leading the study say they now fear the pythons could disrupt the food chain, upsetting the Everglades’ environmental balance in ways difficult to predict.
“The effects of declining mammal populations on the overall Everglades ecosystem, which extends well beyond the national park boundaries, are likely profound,” said John Willson, a research scientist at Virginia Tech University and co-author of the study.
Florida researchers say they have found staggering declines in animal sightings: a drop of 99.3 percent among raccoons, 98 percent for opossums, 94 percent for white-tailed deer, and 87 percent for bobcats. Outside of the immediate region of the pythons, scientists noted declines, but at lower rates. Meanwhile, rabbits and foxes, which were commonly spotted in the mid-90s, were not seen at all in the later counts.
The study comes as Florida U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and federal land officials have sought to curtail the sales of the deadly snakes. lawmakers on Capitol Hill and throughout the state of Florida have sought to confront the issue. Mr. Nelson announced in late 2011 that lawmakers would pursue a ban on the invasive species, citing such studies as evidence that continued allowance of the snakes could ruin the state’s largest natural reserve. The measure has since been put in place, beginning this month.
“These snakes sure-as-heck don’t belong in the Everglades,” said Mr. Nelson. “And they certainly don’t belong in people’s backyards.”
“These giant constrictor snakes do not belong in the Everglades and they do not belong in people’s back yards. Not only are they upsetting the ecological balance because they’re at the top of the food chain. They even attack alligators and consume them,” Mr. Nelson added. “As stewards of our country’s vast public lands and natural resources we have to deal with the threats posed by invasive species.”
Pythons, which are believed to have been introduced to the swamps of Florida by pet owners who decided to free their imported reptiles into the wild, have caused a major problem for the Everglades’ ecosystem, according to published accounts.
Some of the snakes are traced back to reptiles that escaped after Hurricane Andrew swept through the area in 1992. They compete with natural predators and kill other species indigenous to one of America’s most unique national parks.
Speaking in late January, Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said additional species would continue to be reviewed for possible action, but that the four types of snakes that are now banned pose the greatest threat.
Besides the effect the new ban has on curbing an invasive species and protecting native wildlife, it could also protect people who are threatened by the snakes. In 2009, a pet Burmese python escaped from its terrarium and strangled a 2-year-old girl in her central Florida home.