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Exotic South Florida Part IV: The Benefits of Burmese Pythons?

23 Jun

Let’s infer for a moment.

We know:

A.)  There are Burmese Pythons in southern Florida.

B.)   These Burmese Pythons are breeding.

C.)   Burmese Pythons must eat to remain in southern Florida and breed.

D.)  The preferred food of Burmese Pythons, based on stomach contents surveys, is overwhelmingly endothermic/warm blooded in nature.

These are all facts. From these facts we can infer that Burmese Pythons are probably eating a good number of warm blooded animals, that is, Birds and Mammals. Based on this hypothesis I researched and co-wrote a paper (https://fieldventures.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/holbrookchesnespythonsflsc-74-01-17-24-e.pdf), hoping to see if there were, in fact, fewer mammals sighted where the Pythons were established. It turns out, much fewer mammals were observed in the Python’s range when compared to a similar area outside of the Python’s range. Now, my study (and every other study so far,) was not designed to and does not prove that the paucity of mammals in the Everglades is because of Burmese Pythons; but it does allow us to give an educated guess and allow me to make this statement with good conscience: it appears that before the large python die-off in 2010, there were enough pythons in Florida that they were having a significant effect on mammal populations.

Though mammals such as this Florida Panther are for the most part safe from Python predation, most smaller mammals are vulnerable to Pythons.

For more discussion on this aspect, read my paper. But for now, I’d like to take a step beyond the discussion of this paper. Ask yourself, if you lived on the east coast of the United States and took a night drive and saw mammals on the road, which mammals would you most likely see? If you’ve been paying attention to your night drives, you should recall that although Coyotes, Foxes, Panthers/Mountain Lions, and dozens of other mammal species can potentially be seen on a night drive there are two that rule the night in terms of numbers: the Virginia Opossum (Diadelphis virginanus) and the Raccoon (Procyon lotor.)

Forget about the Opossum for a minute: what do we know about the Raccoon? Well, as any person who has herped, camped, hunted, fished, hiked, picnicked, or done just about anything outside will tell you, these little animals are mischievous, smart and really good at finding food. In fact, numerous studies cite Raccoons as the number one predator of many Reptile eggs, especially Sea Turtles.

Now, here’s an ecological concept we call a “Trophic cascade:” Burmese Pythons eat Raccoons, Raccoons eat turtles and their eggs. So what happens when we get more Burmese Pythons? They eat more and we have fewer Raccoons. What happens when we have fewer Raccoons? They eat less and we have more turtles/eggs.

 

So, most people will not dispute that Burmese Pythons are a invasive species, can and will have adverse effects to their South Floridian prey, and may be present in very high numbers (I’ve found about 55, personally.) So the question is this: might this “plague” on Florida actually be helping to protect their ectothermic brethren? Might the Pythons be a detriment on the 8 or so threatened and endangered Mammals occurring in their range but a help to the 17 threatened and endangered reptiles? Don’t get me wrong: pythons should not be here, and best management practices should be used to try to control their numbers – but maybe, especially for Reptile and Amphibians fans, every Burm has a silver lining.

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Posted by on 23/06/2012 in Exotic South Florida series

 

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