As climate change warms the nation, giant Burmese pythons could colonize one-third of the United States, from San Francisco, across the Southwest, Texas and the South and north as far as the Virginia coast, according to U.S. Geological Survey maps released Wednesday.
The pythons can be 20 feet long and weigh 250 pounds. They are highly adaptable to new environments, a particular concern to federal officials who say that snakes in general are often dumped by people who can no longer care for them as pets.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and USGS are investigating the range of nine invasive snakes in Florida, concerned about the danger they pose to endangered species. The agencies are collecting data to aid in the control of these snake populations.
They looked at Burmese pythons first and, based on their habitat in Asia, estimated where they might live here. One USGS map shows where the pythons could live today, an area that expands when scientists use global warming models for 2100.
“We were surprised by the map. It was bigger than we thought it was going to be,” said Gordon Rodda, a USGS zoologist and lead researcher on the project. “They are moving northward, there’s no question.”
Burmese pythons were introduced to this country as part of the pet trade. The first specimens in the wild were discovered in the mid-1990s in the Florida Everglades, released by owners who no longer wanted them, said Skip Snow, a wildlife biologist with the National Parks Service in the Everglades.
By 2003, there was evidence the snakes had established breeding colonies, and Florida began regulating sale and ownership of the snakes Jan. 1.
The Burmese python is not considered a danger to humans. Known cases of human attacks involve pet owners who mishandle and misfeed, said Snow.
In Florida, they eat bobcats, deer, alligators, raccoons, cats, rats, rabbits, muskrats, possum, mice, ducks, egrets, herons and songbirds.
While not poisonous, they do have teeth. They grab with their mouth to anchor the prey, then coil around the animal and crush it before eating it whole.
If you see a Burmese python, wildlife experts advise, leave the immediate area, note the location and notify authorities.