What killed many of Florida's problem snakes? Winter

Miami HeraldMarch 23, 2010 

Winter walloped the Burmese python, but not enough to wipe out the most infamous invader of the Everglades, scientists and wildlife managers told a congressional panel assessing efforts to control the exotic snakes.

The Tuesday hearing put some of the first hard numbers on the staggering death toll from a historic cold snap — nine of 10 pythons equipped with radio tracers in Everglades National Park died, according to one yet-to-be published study.

It also cranked up the heat on a simmering battle over a controversial federal proposal to ban the interstate sale and import of large constrictors. Breeders contend the measure would destroy a $1 billion industry and thousands of jobs.

Shawn Heflick, a conservation biologist from Palm Bay and science advisor to a trade group called the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, said a cold-weather toll he estimated at 70 to 80 percent proved that federal risk assessments suggesting the snake could spread to other states were overblown.

"This population of pythons cannot expand outside of Florida," he said. "This is a Florida problem, not a federal problem."

At least there was no dispute about the Florida part. Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida wildlife ecologist who led an assessment of cold effects on pythons in the Everglades, said enough survived to ensure the Burmese wasn't going to disappear from the comfy, subtropical confines of South Florida — despite cold snaps and intensive eradication efforts.

Nine of the 10 radio-tagged snakes died, including all eight females, but field surveys for several weeks following the cold snap found higher survival rates — nearly 60 percent of 99 snakes spotted by Mazzotti's team of researchers were alive.

With his study pending publication in an academic journal, Mazzotti — reached after the hearing — said he could not discuss the findings in detail, but said it was clear the cold had seriously knocked back a population of big snakes conservatively estimated in the thousands.

Read more of this story at MiamiHerald.com

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