The world knows how non-native Burmese pythons have taken a shine to the vast Florida Everglades. Now, state biologists are concerned that another large and even more aggressive python is beginning to establish itself: the African rock python, which can grow to 16 feet.
Wildlife officials conducted a survey Friday just west of Miami in an area where 30 of the reptiles have been captured over the past few years. The area is close to shopping centers, a major Indian gambling casino and residential neighborhoods, and not far from where a rock python killed a Siberian husky in the dog's backyard in September. Four teams of biologists scattered across tall, sharp-edged saw grass to look for the reptiles. None were found, but biologists say many could still be there.
The state's goal is to prevent these pythons from joining their Burmese cousins as an established, breeding species with no natural predators in Florida, said Jenny Ketterlin Eckles, a wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
"We think, and we hope, that they haven't adapted to the Everglades yet," she said.
The rock python is the largest snake in Africa, routinely growing longer than seven feet and weighing 200 or more pounds. Eckles said there have been reports of rock python attacks on humans in Africa, and one was responsible for the deaths of two young boys in New Brunswick, Canada, in August.
The boys, brothers ages 4 and 6, were asphyxiated by the 14-foot snake as they slept in an apartment after the snake escaped from its glass enclosure. They were sleeping in the apartment of a pet store owner, a family friend.
In the U.S., it is illegal to own an African rock python as a pet or any other personal use or to sell one. Permits must be obtained to import one for a zoo or for research. Still, many of the snakes are smuggled illegally into the U.S. each year and find their way into people's homes, often later to be dumped outside because they are expensive to feed and don't have the friendliest disposition.
That's what officials think happened to establish the Miami-area colony of rock pythons. Eckles said it appears a significant number, perhaps a dozen or more, were dumped in the marsh area at one time, allowing the snakes to begin breeding and forming a colony. Officials have been trying to capture as many as possible to prevent them from spreading.
"We want these snakes away from the ecosystem. They don't belong here in Florida," said wildlife commission spokesman Jorge Pino. "We're trying to get ahead of the problem."
No one wants a repeat of the Burmese python invasion of the Everglades, which prompted Florida earlier this year to stage a "Python Challenge" that attracted 1,600 hunters and netted some 68 snakes. Pino said there's little hope of eradicating the Burmese pythons, which have become firmly established in South Florida and prey on native wildlife at an alarming rate. And the females can lay up 100 eggs at a time.
Florida announced in November the hunt won't be repeated next year. Instead, the state is beefing up established programs that train licensed hunters and people who regularly work in areas known to contain pythons to kill or report exotic snakes. They're also handing out flyers in nearby neighborhoods in English and Spanish that describe the snakes, including pictures, and give people numbers to call if they spot one.
People who own a python can surrender it or any other exotic animal with no questions asked as part of the state's pet amnesty program. Since 2006, 70 pythons have been handed over, wildlife officials say.
If you see a python, call 1-888-Ivegot1.