Screenshot from the CBS News documentary, 'Burmese Python Invasion: Fighting Invasive Species', showing Donna Kalil, a state-sanctioned python hunter in the Everglades area, holding a Burmese python. Photo: CBS News

By Matt Morrison
26 October 2018

(CBS News) – It's been 26 years since Hurricane Andrew became the costliest storm in Florida's history, but today residents of the Sunshine State are still paying the price in a way few would have imagined. Captive Burmese pythons let loose by Andrew's destruction have flourished in the southern Florida ecosystem, decimating local species in the process. And now there are signs this stubbornly invasive species may be poised to make its way beyond the state's borders.

Florida's current python problem had its genesis about a decade before Andrew hit. Pet owners and exotic animals exhibitors in the U.S. had started importing the Southeast Asian Burmese python — among the top 5 largest snake species — for their size and novelty in this part of the world. However, caring for what can grow to be a 15- to 20-foot-long, 200-pound predator can become overwhelming and dangerous. Floridians who found themselves incapable of caring for their pythons relieved themselves of that burden by releasing the snakes into Florida's Everglades, the largest wilderness area in the eastern U.S.

At 734 square miles, Everglades National Park is almost two-thirds the size of Rhode Island and filled with an abundance of wildlife. According to the National Park Service, it's the most significant breeding ground for wading birds in North America. The Burmese python was first sighted in the Everglades in the 1980's, but that turned out to be the calm before the storm.

On 23 August 1992, Andrew made landfall south of Miami as a Category 5 hurricane, one of the most powerful ever to hit the United States. Sustained winds whipped at upwards of 150 miles per hour, more than enough to rip roofs off homes and demolish buildings. One of the buildings affected was a breeding facility for Burmese pythons, and many of them escaped.

Screenshot from the CBS News documentary, 'Burmese Python Invasion: Fighting Invasive Species', showing the potential range of invasive Burmese pythons in North America under global warming. Photo: CBS News

Today the Everglades are overrun with the giant snakes and it's had devastating consequences. A 2012 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that after Andrew exacerbated the Burmese python invasion of the Florida Everglades, populations of raccoons and opossums dropped roughly 99 percent and some species of rabbits and foxes effectively disappeared. Species that had long flourished here were being decimated by the aggressive newcomers.

Invasive species are often able to thrive because they lack natural predators in their new environments, and these snakes are no exception. According to Donna Kalil, a state-sanctioned python hunter in the Everglades area, by the time they reach just 2 years old, the only species that can threaten pythons in the Everglades are alligators. [more]

Burmese python invasion in Florida a hidden legacy of Hurricane Andrew

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