Saturday, March 2, 2013

What NOT to do with your giant pet snake

By Michael DeLea

The exotic pet trade is a multi-billion dollar industry that is second only to drugs and weapons on the black market, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Unfortunately, this practice has been thriving for decades as buyers can get their hands on anything from hedgehogs to full grown tigers. A large percentage of the millions of animals forced into the exotic pet trade every year never actually make it to the home of a buyer and die from the stress of being wild-caught and/or shipped around the world.

Aww, look how cute!
The animals that actually survive long enough to reach their destination present a variety of problems that are rarely considered by their new owners. Baby animals are the most desirable by dealers and prospective buyers alike. What many do not realize is that the infant animals grow up into potentially dangerous adults. In addition to increasing food and space demands, wild-caught critters are not going to be well suited for domestic life.  This often times leads to neglect or abandonment.

The irresponsible owners that decide to abandon their pets or turn them loose in an unfamiliar environment impose an almost certain death on their former pet. Releasing exotic animals into foreign habitats will usually result in the animal starving to death, succumbing to environmental conditions or predators. But what happens if they don’t? What happens if the environment is close enough to the animal’s native habitat?

Now imagine keeping one of these somewhere in your house...
For the answer to this question, we need look no further than the “Sunshine State” in the southeastern United States. Florida’s subtropical climate, major ports of entry for both legal and illegal wildlife species, and location prone to devastating weather events that can lead to the release of captive animals makes it one of the top two states with the most severe invasive species problems. The exotic herptofaunal species in particular are having devastating effects on the local ecosystems. One of the most successful and perhaps the most infamous invader is the Burmese python, Python molurus bivittatus.

Native to Southeast Asia, the Burmese python has been a popular exotic pet since the 1960’s. This isn’t surprising; who wouldn’t want a 20-inch baby python that you could take home for $20? The issue becomes apparent when that baby has grown five or more feet in its first year at home. When full grown, this species of snake can reach lengths of 20+ feet and weigh upwards of 200lbs! So now what do you do when you have an adult Burmese python that requires four people just to pull it out of its enclosure? Sadly, the answer for most owners has been to release it into the wild.

Studies suggest that this species has been breeding in the wild in South Florida for 25 years. While the source remains unconfirmed, the belief is that the snake’s establishment is due in large part to illegal pet releases, with some help coming from the devastation following Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Adult pythons are known to consume a wide variety of prey items including raccoons, rabbits, bobcats (Dorcas et al. 2011) and a reported 25 different species of birds (Dove et al. 2011). Of particular concern is the predation on protected Florida species that are attempting to recover, such as the Key Largo wood rat and the American Alligator. The invasive species is also encroaching on the habitat of Florida’s native snake species. Due to the Burmese python being a habitat generalist in addition to dietary generalist, prime snake real estate such as gopher tortoise burrows are being taken over. This displaces the smaller, naturally occurring species such as the eastern diamondback rattlesnake and the threatened eastern indigo snake, putting them at risk.

A 13-foot Burmese python couldn't hold his lunch after consuming a 6-foot alligator

Python sightings have been increasing exponentially in recent years, resulting in a greater perceived threat for Florida’s native species and delicate ecosystems. You might be thinking to yourself, “it couldn’t be that hard to find a 20 foot snake,” right? Why not have a group of volunteers head out into Everglades National Park and see how many snakes they could find? Well the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission did just that this past January, organizing the “PythonChallenge.” More than 1,500 hunters turned out for a chance to win prize money for the most pythons killed or captured during the month-long event. Want to take a guess of how many snakes were captured or killed? From January 12th until February 10th, a meager 68 snakes were collected in total from the park. The semi-aquatic python had adapted well to the wetlands of Florida’s Everglades, making them particularly evasive.

So how are we expected to deal with such a formidable invasive species? Researchers have been hard at work attempting to overcome the novel difficulties presented by the invasive reptile. Examining the life history of the snake within the context of why it is successful and what its vulnerabilities may be has provided some insight into possible methods of control. For example, studies using radio telemetry have demonstrated that female snakes during breeding season can be used to attract males and telemetered males can be used to locate females. Other methods involve the use of traps, pheromones, and even dogs trained to locate pythons!

Python Pete is a beagle who has been trained to locate pythons in the Everglades

            One particularly interesting approach was borrowed from a pest-management strategy used to deal with another invasive snake. The brown treesnake (Boiga irregularis) is infamous for devastating native bird populations in Guam and it was discovered that acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) disrupts the oxygen-carrying ability of the snake’s hemoglobin. To deliver the drug to the arboreal snake, mice laced with acetaminophen were airdropped with parachutes that were designed to keep the mice suspended in the upper tree branches with the hope of limiting collateral damage to other species. Acetaminophen is also toxic to Burmese pythons and researchers are currently investigating a delivery system to deploy in Florida.

What's that in the sky? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, its a Tylenol-injected mouse with a parachute...

The Burmese Python invasion has garnered significant attention from the media and public in recent years. However, this is not the only organism having severe ecological impacts in Florida. For example, there are currently a greater number of non-native species of lizard breeding in the wild than native species. This problem is largely unknown to the general public due to the fact that invasions often go unrecognized until the problem has exceeded the point of feasible control or eradication. Simply recognizing a potentially threatening invasive species is not enough to bring about action. Necessary incentive and resources are required to design and implement a practical eradication program. Therefore, the most efficient and economical means to do away with invasive species is prevention. Unfortunately, even if no new exotic reptiles become established in Florida, researchers and conservationists still have their work cut out for them.


Dorcas, M.E., et al. 2011. Severe mammal declines coincide with proliferation of invasive Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109: 2418-2422.

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.

Engeman, R., E. Jacobson, M.L. Avery, and W.E. Meshaka Jr. 2011. The aggressive invasion of exotic reptiles in Florida with a focus on prominent species: A review. Current Zoology 57: 599-612.

Mazzotti, F.J., et al. 2010. Cold-induced mortality of invasive Burmese pythons in south Florida. Biological Invasions 13: 143-151

Wilson, J.D., M.E. Dorcas, and R.W. Snow. 2011. Identifying plausible scenarios for the establishment of invasive Burmese pythons (Python molurus) in Southern Florida. Biological Invasions 13: 1493-1504.

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