Conservancy biologists caught the largest Burmese python ever found in Florida’s Everglades: A nearly 18 foot long 215 lb female loaded with 122 eggs.
The record breaking invasive snake was deep in the undergrowth of Picayune Strand in Collier County, where a radio-equipped male “scout snake” named Dion led investigators to her.
While scientists prefer not to make guesses, wildlife biologist Ian Bartoszek says there’s a good chance the massive matriarch is one of the original pet snakes released into the wild decades ago.
In recent years, pythons in the Everglades have exploded and devastated populations of native mammals, including rabbits, possum and white-tailed deer — creatures that should be feeding the endangered Florida panthers rather than introduced Asian reptiles.
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The pythons have adapted so successfully to their new niche, says Bartoszek, environmental science project manager for the Conservancy, that “we may have more Burmese pythons in South Florida than in Southeast Asia,” where numbers are declining as habitat disappears.
Removing them will bring the whole system back to health, said Rob Moher, CEO of Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “We’re spending $16 billion to restore the Everglades — it’s one of the most ambitious restoration projects in the history of the world, and it’s right here (and) you’ve got this,” he says, pointing to the behemoth that a lab table is spread out for a group of reporters, “in the middle of the western Everglades,” Moher said.
“So, is there a future where the western Everglades is silent? Imagine going out there and there’s no wildlife, no birds, because this apex predator is just devouring what’s out there.”
Something the reporters in the lab may not have realized: The snake on the table had been dead for over six months. Although she was in the bag last December, National Geographic wrote an exclusive story on the program that wasn’t published until Tuesday, so scientists “were not allowed to share anything until it was released,” Conservancy spokeswoman Katy Hennig said.
The python was euthanized shortly after capture, though Hennig wouldn’t say how — just that the technique was humane and vet-approved.
Her carcass will be used for science, with tissue samples going to various institutions — “Sky is the limit of what we can do with genetics,” Bartoszek said — and her skeleton will likely be used as a teaching tool.
But her in-demand skin? Although python skin is appreciated by fashion designers, hers won’t end up as a pair of pumps or shoulder bags, Bartoszek said. “We’re not really going there because this animal is vulnerable in their native range and it’s a slippery slope, especially (with) conservation organizations if you’re going to value the skin, so I don’t really want to talk to that much more,” he said, “but we get as much science out of it as we can.”
Something this size had to eat a lot of other animals to get it, Bartoszek says. “These are big game hunters… The last meal this animal had was a white-tailed deer – this is panther food.”
In the past 10 years, the Conservancy’s team has removed 26,000 pounds of pythons — some 1,000 snakes — from 100 square miles. “But how many are left?” asks Bartoszek. “Is that 10%? Is that one percent? We don’t know (but) we are actively pulling them out and working with research partners to see if we can better achieve that statistic and move science forward.”
An innovative technique the team has developed: double-acting male pythons. Equipped with radio trackers, these bachelors go in search of females, and when they find one, the scientists dive in.
This beast did not give in without a fight. Biologist Ian Easterling recalls trying to hold onto her head the size of a brick as she squirmed, clubbing it with her tail in his eye — “It felt like a fist” — while slimming him with a stinking defensive musk. Once subdued and weighed in, the team realized they had a new champion. The previous record weighed 185 pounds.
But for all the ecosystem destruction Burmese pythons wreak, Bartoszek respects them. “It is a beautiful animal; they are very good at what they do.”
And he fears these snakes may not be the last invasive challenge the clearings face.
“We have a vibrant pet trade (and) many gateways (and) a tropical and subtropical climate… a perfect storm,” Bartoszek says. “The question now is: what now?”
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Record-breaking 18-foot Burmese python captured in Florida Everglades