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Snakes alive! 31-pound Burmese python devours 35-pound white-tailed deer fawn in Florida

31-pound Burmese python devours deer fawn in Florida
Credit: Conservancy of Southwest Florida
A Burmese python captured in Southwest Florida ingested a large prey animal.

NAPLES, Fla. — For Burmese pythons — one of South Florida's most notorious invasive species — few meals are too big. But new research by scientists suggests the snake might be snacking above its weight class

While tracking pythons in Collier Seminole State Park in Collier County, a group of wildlife biologists from the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and land managers from the state park stumbled upon an unsettling discovery: An 11-foot Burmese python that had devoured a white-tailed deer fawn weighing more than the snake.

The 2015 finding, which has since been peer-reviewed and is set to be published in the Herpetological Review this month, is believed to be the largest python-to-prey ratio documented to date, with the snake weighing 31.5 pounds and the deer 35 pounds, said Ian Bartoszek, wildlife biologist and science coordinator for the Conservancy.

"It almost did not compute," he said during an announcement of the findings in the Conservancy's snake laboratory Thursday.

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"We were sitting there just trying to process that an animal this size could get its head around what turned out to be a deer. It's surreal to see that in the field."

When the researchers moved the snake out of the wild into an open area that day, the stressed python began to regurgitate the deer, Bartoszek said.

But had the snake's meal been uninterrupted, the python would have eventually fully digested the fawn, which was less than 6 months old, he said. The python was later humanely euthanized.

Burmese pythons, which came to South Florida via the pet trade beginning in the late 1970s and were eventually accidentally or intentionally released into the wild, have had the delicate local ecosystem in a chokehold for years.

But the Conservancy's recent discovery could spell more bad news for Florida's already endangered panther population, Bartoszek said.

"White-tailed deer are the primary prey for our state and federally protected Florida panther," he said. "That's panther food."

Credit: Katie Klann/Naples Daily News
From left, Kathy Worley, director of science, Ian Easterling, field technician, and Monica Hendricks, conservation associate, lay out an 11-foot-long ethically euthanized Burmese python during a news conference Thursday, March 1, 2018, at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. A different python of the same size was recently found with a white-tailed deer fawn in its stomach.

With Burmese pythons capable of reaching near 20 feet in length, finding a relatively small specimen successfully devouring a fawn heavier than the snake was "jaw-dropping," Bartoszek said.

"It showed my team and myself what we were actually dealing with out there, what this python is capable of," he said.

To be sure, Bartoszek said, the pythons, which are apex predators, have been known to swallow large animals, including alligators. What stunned the scientists was the predator-to-prey ratio, he said.

"We know that they'll take adult deer now and then," Bartoszek said. "If they're tapping into young deer, then that just makes me a little bit worried that there will be additional impacts that we haven't even considered yet."

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials don't keep records of python predator-to-prey ratios, said Carli Segelson, a spokeswoman for the agency's division of habitat and species conservation.

"Pythons pose a concern for all native wildlife in Florida," she wrote in an email. "Although infrequent, pythons are known to occasionally take a fawn or small deer, and this has been well documented previously. However, pythons are not believed to be a significant predator of deer."

Credit: Katie Klann/Naples Daily News
During a news conference Thursday, March 1, 2018, at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Ian Easterling, field technician, demonstrates how a Burmese python would unhinge its jaw to consume a large animal, such as a deer.

The Conservancy's python program, which launched about five years ago and is funded by private donors and the Naples Zoo, has researchers radio-tag pythons and then follow them to other snakes during breeding season to remove them from the wild.

As of last month, the Conservancy's team has removed hundreds of adult Burmese pythons with a combined weight of more than 10,000 pounds in Southwest Florida.

Parallel to the Conservancy's efforts, the South Florida Water Management District launched a python elimination program last year, sending python hunters into district-owned lands in Miami-Dade, Broward and Collier counties to track down the snakes and remove them. 

The hunters are paid by the hour and can receive additional bonuses depending on the size of the snakes they capture.

This week a hunter in Collier dispatched a 5½-foot-long snake, the 900th python removed since the program began a year ago, the Water Management District reported Thursday.

Bartoszek, who emphasized the importance of Florida's 15 native snake species, said fully eradicating Burmese pythons is unlikely. The hope, he said, is to bring the python population under localized control.

In the future, removal techniques could involve developing pheromones that could help attract the snakes in the wild, Bartoszek said.

"I think that's a promising field, and others are working on it in labs right now. We're assisting them," he said. "We need to use this animal's biology against them."

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