June 27, 2022
By Lynn Burkhead
In his quest for the Ark of the Covenant in the timeless movie classic, Raiders of the Lost Ark, there was little that Harrison Ford’s swashbuckling real-life superhero character of Indiana Jones was afraid of.
Villains, thieves, and thugs? Sword yielding strongmen in a crowded marketplace filled with foes? Dizzying heights? Dangerous moments and harrowing situations? Nope, for all of those and more, he’d hardly break a sweat.
That is, until one scene where movie director Steven Spielberg revealed Indy’s kryptonite as he opened up a box and discovered it to be slithering and very much alive.
“Snakes…why'd it have to be snakes?,” grimaced Jones, in a sentiment that many can identify with, maybe even a few in South Florida where Indy’s worst nightmare can get rather big.
We’re talking about the state’s invasive Burmese pythons, a troublesome species causing havoc in the Everglades region and subject of viral social media posts and news stories this week that have made the 24/7 cycle of likes and clicks surge with renewed interest concerning the big snakes.
Even the New York Times and National Geographic have gotten into the viral snake news act, with stories highlighting details of a massive python’s capture late last year. The various news reports, including the Time’s and Nat Geo’s, have brought to light a quest by a team of researchers and snake hunters with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which studies the invasive snakes and tracks them down.
While those researchers aren’t often surprised by the pythons they end up finding in Florida’s wild and swampy lands, they were in December 2021 when they discovered a mammoth 18-foot long female python weighing 215-pounds!
If that seems big, it is. In fact, much to Indiana Jones’ chagrin, it’s actually record-breaking big, shattering the Sunshine State's previous python record of 185-pounds, a snake found in 2021.
Incidentally, if you’d like to see just how big a 215-pound python is, you can get a bird’s eye view of the snake in a Conservancy of Southwest Florida news conference, where the YouTube parked video has gathered more than 150,000+ views in only a couple of days.
The news of the 2021 record-breaking Burmese python causing all of the fuss this week isn't making anyone smile given the python's destructive capabilities in the state's fragile Everglades ecosystem. And many of those frowns are being generated by the fact that the snake’s record-breaking size is partially because it was a mother-to-be, carrying a staggering 122 undeveloped eggs inside of her, another undesirable record for Florida.
Also contributing to the snake's massive weight was one of its last meals. A necropsy of the snake reportedly showed hoof cores in its digestive system, which came from a white-tailed deer.
Gordon Whittington, editor emeritus for the Outdoor Sportsman Group publication North American Whitetail, once wrote a piece for the magazine about the invasive critter and its effects on Florida’s whitetail population.
This week’s news of the big python found late last year—and its dietary preferences—gained the attention of Whittington from his Georgia home. He noted wryly in a Facebook post on his fan page that “A few years ago, for NAW I wrote a short report on the conflict between South Florida’s native whitetails and illegally introduced Burmese pythons. Case in point.”
While Whittington’s report a few years back was in the print publication, I was able to track down a copy and give it a look. It’s a very good reference point concerning this Florida snake problem, serving as a solid backstory about why these Burmese pythons are so highly sought by biologists concerned with the harmful effects that the snakes are having in southern Florida.
“Since the late 1970s, when the first pet Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) were illegally released in South Florida, an upheaval of the region's ecosystem has been under way,” noted Whittington in his NAW story.
“With a warm climate and lack of predators to keep numbers under control, today an estimated 100,000 of these naturalized Asian snakes are crawling wild in the state.
“Biologists claim they already have wiped out up to 90 percent of small animals in the Everglades and some other parts of the region.
“But not all their prey are small. As shown here, a Burmese python's diet even can include whitetails.
“In 2015, a research team at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida found this python, whose distended body pointed to a recent meal of great size. Upon capturing the snake, researchers were shocked to see it regurgitate a buck fawn that actually outweighed it. In fact, as of this writing, the prey:predator ratio of 1.11--a 35-pound deer being swallowed by a 31.1-pound python--is the highest ever documented for any snake.
“All pythons are constrictors, coiling their bodies around prey and maintaining their grip until the victims' lives are literally squeezed from them. While most prey are small, jaws that can be unhinged while feeding allow pythons to swallow animals larger in diameter than their own bodies. It's been documented in Florida with alligators, and that was clearly true in the case of this young whitetail.
“After years of facing this invasion of the mainland, state officials now also have discovered pythons living in parts of the Florida Keys, home to the endangered Key deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium). That has accelerated efforts to find and remove pythons from across the region.”
Whittington went on to note that in its desperation to capture the huge slithering critters and remove them from the state’s amazing flora and fauna, a variety of methods have been utilized including bounties, bringing in Irula tribesmen (who specialize in catching venomous snakes in India, and the use of heat-seeking drones. He also mentioned tournaments where prizes and rewards are offered for the capture of these snakes.
That method remains very much in use today, where Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, a rumored presidential candidate in a couple of years, recently announced the state’s 2022 Florida Python Challenge. An annual 10-day event open to professionals and novice participants, this year’s event will be held Aug. 5-14. Participants must register, take the required online training, then go capture pythons, and potentially win thousands of dollars of prizes for helping the Sunshine State deal with its python problem.
FYI, for those interested in participating, you can do so by visiting the website www.FLPythonChallenge.org. Once there, register and take the online training or opt for in-person training sessions, both of which will help participants learn more about Burmese pythons, the uniqueness of the Everglades ecosystem, the threat these snakes pose, and a variety of resources to help snake-hunters in their quest.
“The Everglades is one of the world’s most prized natural resources, and we have invested record funding for Everglades restoration projects, including record funding for removal of invasive Burmese pythons which wreak havoc on the ecosystem,” said DeSantis, in a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission news release. “Because of this focus, we have removed record numbers of invasive pythons from the Everglades. I am proud of the progress we’ve made, and I look forward to seeing the results of this year’s Python Challenge.”
Those efforts have increased over time, including last year’s contest where FWC officials note that more than 600 people from 25 states participated in the Florida Python Challenge, more than doubling the take of the 2020 Challenge, the latter admittedly taking place in the worst year of the COVID-19 pandemic that potentially kept many snake hunters at home.
Better yet, 2021 participants removed 223 invasive Burmese pythons from the Everglades, contributing to the more than 16,000 snakes that have been removed since 2000. Since FWC officials note that female Burmese pythons typically lay 50 to 100 eggs at a time—or even 122 in the biggest cases—each python removed is a critical small victory for the state’s ongoing battle against the slithering creatures.
“The Florida Everglades is an iconic habitat in Florida and removing Burmese pythons from this ecosystem is critical to the survival of the species that live in this vast wild area,” said FWC chairman Rodney Barreto, in the news release. “Under the leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis, the FWC and our dedicated partners continue to have great success conserving our native wildlife and managing this invasive predator.”
“In partnership with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the South Florida Water Management District is removing about 60 percent more pythons each year under the leadership of Governor DeSantis,” agreed SFWMD executive director Drew Bartlett. “The Python Challenge is yet another way to get people directly involved in the protection and stewardship of the Everglades. We continue to expedite Everglades restoration efforts thanks to the support of Governor DeSantis, and we’ll continue doing everything we can to protect this important ecosystem.”
In the case of the Naples, Fla. based Conservancy of Southwest Florida, doing everything possible includes planting GPS trackers in male pythons known as scout snakes--the 12-footer that was used last December is reportedly named Dionysus, or Dion, according to various news reports--and releasing them into the wild to find large female pythons, which are particularly troublesome given their size and egg-laying capabilities.
The state is also serious about getting rid of the pythons, making a record investment of $3 million in Florida’s recent budget for ongoing removal efforts, which includes the use of advanced technologies like near-infrared cameras to detect and capture the snakes. Efforts are also increasing to remove the snakes from Florida public land like state parks and the U.S. Department of the Interior has given additional access to federal lands like the Big Cypress National Preserve to expedite snake removal efforts.
The Burmese pythons can also be hunted on private lands at any time and FWC officials note that there is no permit or license required for them to be captured and humanely killed, which hopefully will help encourage more people to get involved.
What can you do to help deal with this huge and slithering problem? If you’re in southern Florida in early August, consider registering for the Python Challenge, getting trained, and going afield to help find and rid the Everglades of these invasive pythons.
Something tells me that if you do so, Indiana Jones might even smile.