Correction: A previous version of this article said that African rock pythons were established in Everglades National Park. They are actually established and breeding in Miami, just outside the park’s border. This story has been updated.
It’s Wednesday, World Snake Day, a holiday with dubious origins, during which enthusiasts express their undying love – not fear – for serpents that frighten large numbers of people.
In the spirit of the day, Americans might want to consider the findings of a federal study that says visitors shouldn’t avoid Everglades National Park, south of Miami, because some 150,000 Burmese pythons have made a home there.
According to the study by U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service researchers, pythons, among the world’s largest snakes, tend not to bite… humans. Everything else, from rats to storks to American alligators, is fair game.
More than a million people visit the park every year, the study says, and not one bite has been reported. Visitors venture out in canoes, on foot, and along trails – everywhere pythons have been found on the swampy terrain.
To clarify, there have been no attacks on the average visitor. For biologists who study the swamp’s waters, there’s a different story. Over a 10-year period, pythons lunged at five workers, said the study’s lead author, USGS wildlife biologist and herpetologist Bob Reed.
The strikes appear to have been five cases of mistaken identity, Reed said. Realizing they weren’t lunging at a deer, or an opossum, or a bobcat or any of 20 species of birds that have been pulled out of the stomachs of dead serpents during necropsies, the pythons backed down.
More than likely, it was “aborted feeding behavior,” Reed said. While it might be a little hard to believe pythons are more willing to tangle with an alligator than a human, Reed stressed that they “rely on being secretive and evading detection as their primary means of avoiding interactions with people, and typically don’t strike until provoked.”
Reed said the workers said they didn’t see the snakes, and concluded in his professional opinion that the attacks were “related to feeding and not defense.” He didn’t say whether the scientists were scared stiff by the encounter.
The study is important because a few people have indicated that they’re afraid to visit one of the world’s greatest swamps because of the invasive snakes from South America and India.
It concluded that the risk of an attack by a Burmese python in the Everglades is low, but not nonexistent. Evidence gathered from captive snakes suggests that even strikes resulting from mistaken identity could be followed by constriction, which can be deadly, particularly for a small person.
More than 2,000 pythons have been removed from the Everglades since 2002. In fact, at least two other species of python, and one of the meanest large snakes of all, the African rock python, is established and breeding just outside the park. The National Park Service says pet owners likely put the snakes in the park intentionally or by mistake.
Park Superintendent Dan Kimball said he won’t let pythons or any other snake ruin anyone’s trip to one of America’s greatest natural resources. “Visitor and staff safety is always our highest priority,” he said.
Not mentioned is the 17-foot python that slithered into a family picnic area at the park in 2012, startling a family from Arkansas. Park rangers rushed to the scene and fired a bullet into it. The incident was a first and hasn’t repeated since.
Kimball offered a few tips on dealing with snakes that can constrict deer twice the size of adult men. “Our guidance to visitors with respect to Burmese pythons is the same as for our native wildlife — please maintain a safe distance and don’t harass the wildlife.”
Seems easy enough. “With respect to controlling Burmese pythons, we are working diligently with our state, federal, tribal, and local partners to manage this invasive species and educate the public on the importance of not letting invasive species loose in the wild,” he said.
But controlling pythons hasn’t worked. The state of Florida last year held an open hunt called the Python Challenge that only proved the snakes are extremely hard to find and even harder to eradicate.
So the good news is that the study seems accurate – people rarely see pythons. The bad news – people can’t seem to spot them even if they’re four feet away – is also accurate.
Biologists at the USGS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are trying to arrest the spread of pythons, which are excellent swimmers.
In fact, in at least one instance, one was spotted swimming toward the Florida Keys. They can conceivably make their way north to St. Petersburg and Tampa. And, if they adapt better to cooler temperatures, farther north to Georgia.
Happy World Snake Day.