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13-Foot Pythons Now Challenging 6-Foot Alligators in the Everglades

Close to 1 million people flock to Florida's Everglades National Park each year, hoping to catch glimpses of the most famed of the 1.5-million-acre-park's inhabitants: alligators.

Perhaps even more exciting, though, would be to catch a glimpse of one the newer, but flourishing, inhabitants of the Everglades: a Burmese python.

Burmese pythons start as tiny hatchlings but can grow up to 20 feet long.

The exotic snakes are one of the most popular animals in the multi-billion-dollar international pet trade. But what seems like a cute pet at first can soon grow to be 20 feet long.

"People pay as low as $20 per hatchling not realizing how big they grow. In just two to three years, these snakes can grow to be at least 9 feet, so it's a significant commitment," said park biologist Skip Snow. Since 1999, more than 144,000 Burmese pythons have been imported into the United States.

Biologists believe that most of the Burmese pythons popping up in the Everglades are, indeed, there because pet owners who decided they no longer wanted the snakes set them free in the park.

While it's not known just how many pythons may have been dumped in the Everglades since they were first sighted in the late 1990s, at least 150 have been captured since 2003, said Joe Wasilewski, a wildlife biologist and crocodile tracker. And one thing is for sure, says Snow, the snakes, which have a 25-year life span, are breeding.

A New Threat to Wildlife

Both python and alligator seem to have met their match.

In September, a 13-foot Burmese python burst after it tried to swallow a six-foot alligator that was still alive (see the picture at right if you don't believe us). This is the fourth such encounter in the last three years, an occurrence that has biologists worried.

"It means nothing in the Everglades is safe from pythons, a top-down predator," said Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida wildlife professor. "There had been some hope that alligators can control Burmese pythons. This indicates to me it's going to be an even draw. Sometimes alligators are going to win and sometimes the python will win."

Smaller species including other reptiles, otters, squirrels, wood storks and sparrows are especially at risk from the pythons.

In an effort to fight the snakes, national park officials have even begun training a beagle puppy nicknamed "Python Pete" to track down the snakes and bark. Park officials can then capture and remove the pythons. This is one of various control methods currently in place, they say.

From the mid-1990s through 2003, 52 Burmese pythons were removed from the park, which sounds like a lot until you consider that 61 or more of the snakes were taken out each year since 2004.

"There is no indication that the problem is letting up," said Snow.

A Threat to Humans?

It used to be that a tourist's biggest, albeit rare, threat upon visiting the Everglades would be the alligators. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), there have been 14 reported fatal alligator attacks on people in Florida since the 1950s, and 15 to 20 non-fatal alligator attacks occur in Florida each year.

Will pythons soon surpass alligators and pose a threat to humans visiting the park?

While a Burmese python is capable of killing a human--in 1996, a 19-year-old was killed by his 13-foot Burmese python while trying to feed it, for instance--attacks are extremely rare.

Says Wasilewski, a large python of 10 or 20 feet could be a risk to an unexpecting human, particularly a child, so extra caution is certainly warranted when visiting the Everglades. However, "I don't think this is an imminent threat. This is not a `Be afraid, be very afraid' situation,'" Wasilewski said.

Recommended Reading

Shark Attacks! How Common are They? Where do They Occur?

So You Want to Perform an Exorcism: Here is What it Takes


Reuters: Everglades swamped with invading pythons

CNN: Predators in Paradise

American Park Network

National Geographic: Python-Tracking Puppy

National Geographic: Huge, Freed Pet Pythons Invade Florida Everglades

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