South Florida’s most aggressive invasive species has found a new way to grab headlines: slither atop a research platform in Biscayne Bay.
Last month, a kayaker spied a 9-foot Burmese python wrapped around part of a platform more than a half mile offshore in Biscayne National Park usually inhabited by sunning cormorants. The sighting was a first for the park and another worrisome sign that the state’s out-of-control pythons are getting more adept at inhabiting the state’s salty fringes. In September, state wildlife biologists confirmed for the first time that the snakes are now breeding in the Keys.
“It’s another raising of the notch in the war against pythons,” said University of Florida wildlife biologist Frank Mazzotti. “When you actually see something like this, how often does it occur that you don’t see it?”
Swimming snakes are not unheard of. A 2015 study by the U.S. Geological Society tracking pythons for five years found they lived in both freshwater marshes and mangroves around Cape Sable. Scientists suspect at least some of the adult snakes that started breeding in Key Largo swam there. Finding a snake on a platform just confirms the snakes are equally comfortable in open water, Mazzotti said.
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“To find one swimming is not surprising and it probably, in the course of swimming, spied that platform and said, ‘Ah, this is a good place to get out in the sun,’” he said.
It also means the snakes could make their way to islands inhabited by birds or other small mammals and occasional turtle nests. Six of the park’s islands, including Mangrove Key and the Arsenickers about five miles to the south, annually attract nesting birds, mostly cormorants but also herons, egrets, ibises and roseate spoonbills. And any island big enough to support mammals could be a target for pythons. The 2015 USGS study found the snakes tended to congregate around tree islands in the Everglades, where birds nest.
A day after the kayaker reported the sighting on the platform — located north of the Mowry Canal and used by the South Florida Water Management District to monitor water quality — district python wrangler Bobby Hill snagged it, said park biologist Vanessa McDonough. The snake is now being used to educate the public about invasive species.
McDonough suspects the python got spooked by an angler near the canal – a popular fishing channel lined by trails that cuts across large empty fields east of Southwest 112th Avenue – slithered into the water and swam down the canal to the bay.
“I know the pythons are in that area because that’s Bobby Hill’s terrain and he’s grabbed quite a few,” she said.
But sightings in the park, especially in park waters, are nearly unheard of.
“We don’t want people to think Biscayne Bay is teeming with pythons ready to chomp on people in the water,” she said. “We don’t want people afraid of the water.”
Up until this year, only one had been reported in the park, when a boater spotted a juvenile just over a foot long swimming between 100 and 200 yards off Black Point Channel. In January, a 6.6-foot snake was spotted and captured on the jetty. After November, the number climbed to five, McDonough said.
“It was like boom, boom, boom,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s just a matter of people being more alert or if there truly are more.”
The carcass of a five- to six-foot snake was found last week just west of the park entrance, she said. Two days later a biker pedaling across the park’s foot bridge photographed a two- to three-foot albino python. Park staff searched for more than an hour, but were unable to find it. A day later, a park worker spotted a six to seven-foot python on Adams Key just west of the south end of Elliott Key, she said. Despite multiple searches, the snake remains missing.
Which is why reporting snakes immediately is critical, she said.
Since the snakes became established around 2000, biologists still have no reliable way to control them, an effort complicated by the inability to consistently track them. The snakes are perfectly camouflaged for the marshes and mangroves, which are equally inhospitable to human hunters. Reporting sightings quickly to the park’s main number, at 305-230-1144, can help, even if it means just catching a single snake, McDonough said.
“We’ve found even when we provide an instant response, the snakes will move and they’re so difficult to see,” she said. “Once it’s moved into the brush, it’s almost a lost cause.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich