A team searching under dense vegetation in the pine flatwoods of the Everglades late last year came upon a slithering sight, the likes of which no one had found before in those parts: 215 pounds of snake.
It was the largest Burmese python ever found in Florida, breaking a record set by the invasive species in 2016 at 140 pounds, according to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. The reptile had 122 eggs inside her, another record for the state
“We don’t really consider pythons big until they top 100 pounds, so now I need a new description for a 200-pound python,” said Ian Bartoszek, environmental science project manager for the group, an environmental advocacy organization. “It’s just next level for us.”
The search was like a stakeout. The team tracked its target for weeks using a “scout snake,” a male with a tracking device, which was looking to mate. The researchers had to approach at just the right time and angle. An intern with the team, Kyle Findley, dodged a punch from the snake’s body, but Ian Easterling, a biologist, wasn’t so lucky. The 215-pound Burmese python hit him in the face with her balled-up tail.
Once the team members had a solid grip, Easterling swung the snake over his shoulder and took it to a truck.
“She put up a pretty good fight,” he said at a news conference Wednesday.
The conservancy has been following and capturing pythons for nearly 10 years in an effort to protect the native species that live in the Everglades’ ecosystem, Bartoszek said.
Burmese pythons, originally a species from Southeast Asia, actively threaten the native flora and fauna of the Florida ecosystem, where they have thrived, Bartoszek said. The snake has become a predator to many other animals, particularly the white-tailed deer found in wooded areas throughout the United States.
Dwindling deer populations have also increased the threat to the Florida panther, which feeds on the deer, he said. This subspecies of cougar, also Florida’s state animal, is now endangered.
Bartoszek said he and his team were shocked when they found the first 100-pound python in 2014, for that used to be considered on the higher end of the scale. The size of the recent discovery shows that Burmese pythons have continued to feed on more of the local fauna, as they grow with consumption and not necessarily age, he said.
Capturing and studying pythons allows researchers to get closer to an estimate of how many are in the wild, a figure researchers place in the tens of thousands to well over 100,000 in Florida.
“You just stop for a second and think, ‘What did it take to make a 215-pound snake?’” Bartoszek said. “And imagine how many more snakes close to that size are out there. There’s probably a bigger snake in the Glades somewhere.”
The snake was captured in December, and the team waited until breeding season was over in March to start measuring and conducting research on the ones they found.
The conservancy uses male snakes — in this case, a specimen they have named Dion — to find the females ensconced in hard-to-reach places, Bartoszek said. The snake hunters place tracking devices on the males and focus on the areas to which they migrate during breeding season, which runs from November to March.
Although the search for pythons can feel like a stakeout (the hunting and catching) and even resemble a crime scene (as researchers look through the contents of pythons’ stomachs), the snake hunters say they have a lot of respect for those carnivores, Bartoszek said.
“It is a remarkable animal, and it’s here from no fault of their own,” he said. “But we realize what’s at stake.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also works to reduce this snake population, said McKayla Spencer, a coordinator for the python program. The agency trains and hires contractors to hunt them; it uses detector dogs; and it has a program in the summer, the Florida Python Challenge, in which the public is encouraged to hunt and remove pythons for a prize. This year’s challenge will run Aug. 5-14.
The state is seeking to improve detection of pythons in the wild, because they are skilled at camouflaging and settling in remote areas, Spencer said.
“We need to try multiple methods, multiple ways to try to control these animals,” she said.
Burmese pythons were introduced to the Everglades in the 1980s by the exotic pet trade industry, but their sale was outlawed in 2012, said Stephen Leatherman, an earth and environment professor at Florida International University in Miami.
People who held the pythons did not always know what to do with them when they became too big to manage, and many released them into the wild. The Burmese python has since taken the spot of the alligator, which is native to Florida, as the top predator in the Everglades.
The Everglades region, which takes up 1.5 million acres in South and Southwest Florida, is a one-of-a-kind freshwater ecosystem surrounded by saw grass, with a slow-moving river in the wet season, according to the National Park System. Its habitats include cypress swamps, wet prairie and mangroves, with diverse species of birds, mammals, reptiles and plants, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
The Burmese python is only one of the threats that endanger that natural resource, said Steve Johnson, a wildlife, ecology and conservation professor at the University of Florida. Water pollution, rising sea levels and urban development, in addition to other invasive species such as the tegu lizard and cane toad, take a toll on the wetlands.
“The Everglades is a globally significant ecosystem — there’s no other Everglades anywhere in the world,” he said. “It’s uniquely Floridian, and it’s important we try to preserve it.”