Capture! Record-breaking 18-foot Burmese python pulled from Collier County wilderness

Biologists have discovered the largest Burmese python ever found in Everglades, Florida: a roughly 18-foot-long, 215-pound female loaded with 122 eggs.

It was the record-breaking invading python deep inside the Picayune Strand Scrub in Collier County, where a radio-equipped “scout” python named Dion led researchers into it.

Although scientists prefer not to make guesses, wildlife biologist Ian Bartoshek says there’s a good chance the megafauna was one of the original pet snakes released into the wild decades ago.

In recent years, snakes have exploded like a bomb in the Everglades, decimating populations of native mammals including rabbits, opossums and white-tailed deer – creatures that should be feeding endangered Florida leopards rather than the introduced Asian reptiles.

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So the snakes have adapted to their new niche, says Bartoszek Environmental Science Project Director, “We may have more Burmese pythons in southern Florida than in Southeast Asia,” where numbers dwindle as habitats disappear.

Rob Moher, CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, says its removal would help the entire system regain its health. “We’re spending $16 billion to restore the Everglades — it’s one of the most ambitious restoration projects in world history and it’s on our doorstep here (and) you have this,” he says, pointing to a giant spread in the lab table for a group of journalists, “in the midwest Everglades.” Muhair said.

“So, is there a future where the western Everglades are silent? Imagine going out and there is no wildlife and no bird life because this prime predator is devouring what is there.”

Reporters may not have realized what they had collected in the lab: the snake on the table had been dead for more than six months. Although she was hit with the bag last December, National Geographic was writing an exclusive story about the program that wasn’t published until Tuesday, so “scientists weren’t allowed to share anything until it was released,” said Conservancy spokeswoman Katie Hennig.

The snake was euthanized shortly after capture, although Hennig wouldn’t say how – only that the technique was humane and approved by the vet.

Her cadavers will be used in science, with tissue samples going to various institutions — “the sky is the limit of what we can do with genetics,” Bartoszek said — and her skeleton will likely be used as an educational tool.

But hidden by the large demand? Although snakeskin is prized by fashion designers, snakeskin won’t end up as pairs of pumps or cross-body bags, Bartoszek said. “We don’t really go there, because this animal is vulnerable in its native range and it’s a slippery slope, especially (with) conservation organizations if they start putting a value on leather, so I don’t really want to talk to that much more,” he said, But we’re getting as much knowledge as possible.”

Bartoszek says that something this big would have to eat a lot of other animals to get it that way. “These are great game hunters…the last meal this animal ate was a white-tailed deer – this is tiger food.”

Over the past 10 years, the Conservancy team has removed 26,000 pounds of snakes — about 1,000 — from 100 square miles. “But how many are there?” Bartoshik asks. “Is that 10%? Is that one percent? We don’t know (but) we get them out and we’re working with research partners to see if we can get better access to that scale and move the science forward.”

This Burmese python was caught by biologists from the Southwest Florida Preserve.  The female snake is about 18 feet long and 215 pounds in weight and is the largest snake ever caught in Florida.  It was captured by the Conservancy Research Program, which uses radio transmitters implanted in males.

This Burmese python was caught by biologists from the Southwest Florida Preserve. The female snake is about 18 feet long and 215 pounds in weight and is the largest snake ever caught in Florida. It was captured by the Conservancy Research Program, which uses radio transmitters implanted in male “scout” snakes. Scout snakes lead biologists to large breeding and female aggregations, allowing researchers to remove them from the wild.

One of the innovative technologies the team developed: male double-agent snakes. Equipped with radio trackers, these bachelors go in search of females, and when they find one, the scientists pounce.

This creature did not surrender without a fight. Biologist Ian Easterling remembers trying to hold onto her tiny head while writhing, smacking him in the eye with her tail—”it felt like a fist”—while petting it with a smelly defensive musk scent. Once he succumbed and weighed in, the team realized they had a new champion. The previous record was 185 pounds.

However, despite all the havoc that Burmese pythons wreak on the ecosystem, Bartoshik respects them. “He is a beautiful animal. They are very good at what they do.”

It is feared that these snakes may not be the last invasive challenge the planks must face.

“We have a vibrant pet trade (and) many ports of entry (and) a tropical and sub-tropical climate…a perfect storm,” Bartoszek says. The question now is: What next?

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: An 18-foot Burmese python smashes into the Florida Everglades

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