The strange case of the exploding python

Alligators have clashed with pythons before in the United States’s Everglades National Park. But when a 1,8m gator tangled with a 3,9m python recently, the result wasn’t pretty.

The snake apparently tried to swallow the gator whole—and then exploded. Last week, a wildlife researcher discovered the python’s remains with the gator’s hindquarters protruding from its midsection, its stomach still surrounding the alligator’s head, shoulders, and forelimbs.

The incident has alerted biologists to new potential dangers from Burmese pythons in the Everglades.

“Clearly, if they can kill an alligator they can kill other species,” said Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida wildlife professor, who is concerned that the encroachment of Burmese pythons into the Everglades could threaten an $8-billion restoration project and endanger smaller species.

The Asian snakes have thrived in the wet, hot climate and have battled the alligators with increasing frequency—Everglade scientists have documented four encounters in the last three years.

The gators have had to share their territory with the Burmese python population that has swelled over the past 20 years with owners dropping off pythons that they no longer want in the Everglades.

“Encounters like that are almost never seen in the wild ...
And here we are, it’s happened for the fourth time,” Mazzotti said. In the other cases, the alligator won or the battle was an apparent draw.

“They were probably evenly matched in size,” Mazzotti said of the latest battle. “If the python got a good grip on the alligator before the alligator got a good grip on him, he could win.”

While the gator may have been injured before the battle began—wounds were found on it that apparently were not caused by python bites—Mazzotti believes it was alive when the battle began. And it may have clawed at the python’s stomach as the snake tried to digest it, leading to the blow-up.

“There had been some hope that alligators can control Burmese pythons,” said Mazzotti.

“This indicates to me it’s going to be an even draw. Sometimes alligators are going to win and sometimes the python will win.”

But, he added, “It means nothing in the Everglades is safe from pythons, a top-down predator.”

Not only can the pythons kill other reptiles, but the snakes will also eat otters, squirrels, endangered woodstorks and sparrows.

While there are thousands of alligators in the Everglades, Joe Wasilewski, a wildlife biologist and crocodile tracker, said it is unknown how many pythons there are.

“We need to set traps and do a proper survey,” of the snakes, he said. At least 150 have been captured in the past two years.

The problem arises, he said, when people buy pets for which they are not prepared to care.

“People will buy these tiny little snakes and if you do everything right, they’re six feet [1,8m] tall in one year. They lose their appeal, or the owner becomes afraid of it. There’s no zoo or attraction that will take it,” so they release the snakes into the Everglades.

A reproducing snake can have as many as 100 hatchlings, which explains why the snake population has soared, Wasilewski said.

A 3m or 6m python is large enough to pose a risk to an unwary human, especially a small child, he said.

The Burmese snake problem is just part of a larger issue of non-native animal populations in South Florida, Wasilewski added. So many iguanas have been discarded in the region that they are gobbling tropical flowers and causing problems for botanists, he said.—Sapa-AP

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