Project Python

Could Florida's invasive Burmese pythons spread north? A team of scientists hope to find out.
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Could Florida's invasive Burmese pythons spread north? A team of scientists hope to find out.

This is how horror movies begin: As part of a scientific experiment, exotic, 12-foot pythons are kept in a scientific research facility—until they escape and terrorize a nation that forgot the lessons of Snakes On A Plane.

I only wish I was kidding. Invasive Burmese pythons (which can grow to nearly 25 feet long) have overtaken the Florida Everglades, so much so that wildlife officials have moved on from eradication into species management. The big question is whether they could spread throughout the country; Florida's swamps are not unlike the snake's natural Southeast Asian habitat, but it's unclear whether they could move beyond them.

To find out if that's possible, ecologists at the Savannah River Ecology Lab in South Carolina released seven Burmese pythons into a wild area surrounded by 400 feet of reinforced fence. Scientists have outfitted the reptiles with transmitters and sensors to monitor their physical condition as they weather a more variable climate. If they do well, that means Burmese pythons populations could move far beyond Florida.

This, as you'd imagine, isn't really a good thing: While small pets and animals are obviously in danger, this new apex predator can potentially kill and eat people. Whit Gibbons, a professor of ecology at the University of Georgia and a member of the python project, explains in disturbing terms:

"A 20-foot python, if it grabbed one of us, would bite us and then within just - instantly - seconds, it would be wrapped all the way around you and squeezing the life out of you," Gibbons said.

"What about the first kitty cat they eat? Or the first little poodle? They'd love poodles, I imagine."

I can't say I'd be too upset at the loss of a few obnoxious poodles, but the minute I see my neighbor Timmy's outline through the gullet of a giant snake, I'd say it's time to panic. But scientists probably have this under control. I'm sure they've taken every precaution. There's no possible way they'd escape. Right? Right?!

"We never want to say never. We've made the enclosure as snake-proof as possible but we've taken some other precautions," Mike Dorcas, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina, said.

Great. Thanks for reassuring me, Professor. You see? This is how horror movies begin.

—Ted Alvarez

Burmese pythons slithering their way north? (Miami Herald)