Environment

Python big gulp: Three whole Everglades deer in one big snake belly

While a big eater, the 15-foot python is not considered remarkably large. Some have been found longer than 18 feet.
While a big eater, the 15-foot python is not considered remarkably large. Some have been found longer than 18 feet. Dickinson College

Pythons eat a lot. No surprise there. But in a new study, scientists examining poop from a Burmese python bagged in the Everglades discovered the ravenous snakes may be gorging themselves on a Denny’s scale of a Lumberjack Slam with two Moons over My Hammy.

One snake. Three deer inside.

While it’s the first time researchers have documented such a massive feast, the lead author, Dickinson College herpetologist Scott Boback, thinks the three-deer meal could be an indication of how efficiently the snakes have adapted to the marshes since they appeared in the 1980s.

“What I think is going on is the pythons are completely monopolizing the biomass in the Everglades,” he said. “They’re taking all that stuff that’s out there and just making it more pythons.”

The discovery was made after prolific snake wrangler Bobby Hill, a python control agent for the South Florida Water Management District, caught the 15.6-foot female python with a bulging belly in Everglades National Park in June 2013. Two days later, researchers performed a routine necropsy and found a “massive amount of fecal matter” in its intestines that included 12 hooves. The contents,sent to the Smithsonian and eventually to Boback, turned out to be a new record for python consumption: one adult deer and two fawns. Collectively, the deer weighed more than 160 pounds when eaten.

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At that rate, the invaders could pose a more urgent threat to the suffering marshes than previously feared, Boback said.

“We found one python at one location with three deer,” he said. “There could be hundreds and thousands of pythons out there eating deer and doing the same thing.”

Despite years of tracking snakes through nearly impenetrable marshes, scientists don’t have a good handle on their numbers. Much of the evidence is circumstantial. Since pythons appeared in the park, where hunting is forbidden, the population of white-tailed deer has dropped 94 percent. The number of small mammals has also plummeted, suggesting pythons have moved up the food chain to become the park’s top predator.

But captured snakes are almost always found along roads, meaning they’re on the move and haven’t recently eaten, Boback said.

“When a python eats a large meal, it just chills out,” he said. “They’re not going to cross the road.”

That suggests the evidence researchers are collecting from captured snakes may be skewed. And that’s an important distinction in understanding how they live and eat. The findings could also have implications for deer populations where pythons are found in other areas, including the Big Cypress National Preserve, where hunting is permitted and panthers have been blamed for a decline in deer.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue workers catch an eight-foot Burmese python near Southwest Eighth Street and 135th Avenue after it was spotted by a trio of cyclists on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016.

Well-fed snakes are also better reproducers, which researchers know because they look at the fat in females to measure reproductive capability. The snake examined in the study — entitled “Supersize me: remains of three white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in an invasive Burmese python (Python molurus bivittatus) in Florida” — had a large amount of fat, and a large amount of baby snakes in the making.

With snakes of all sizes, nearly every marsh animal is at risk, from lizards and birds up the food chain to alligators, which have also been found in snake bellies. The snake examined in the study likely ate within 87 days of its capture, Boback said. But it also could have eaten in a much shorter time. And at 15 feet, the snake was not even close to record-sized snakes reaching more than 18 feet, which presumably eat even more.

“What does that mean for the rest of the population out there? They could be doing the same thing and likely are,” he said. “We’ve seen pythons eating deer but the problem is we have only found a couple and now we have one of them that ate three.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the snake’s length at 14 feet.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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