Researcher educates about invasive pythons

Ecological show-and-tell includes 14-foot specimen

02/22/2012 12:00 AM

02/20/2012 4:37 PM

A 14-foot Burmese python named Carmelita greeted Mooresville Public Library patrons Feb. 9 as Davidson College biologist Dr. Michael Dorcas gave a presentation titled "Invasive Pythons in the United States."

Dorcas' book of the same title, written with his former student John D. Wilson, was published in October.

He and three assistants held the snake for attendees to touch. He warned everyone not to pinch the female snake or touch her head.

Carmelita was raised in captivity. She seemed more nervous about the crowd than they were about her, hiding her head behind Dorcas and under his arm.

The program was sponsored by the Lake Norman Wildlife Conservationists, a chapter of the N.C. Wildlife Federation, to educate the community about conservation issues.

Educating the young about conservation is important, said Dorcas, because "we need to preserve our environment. We've messed it up pretty bad already, and maybe we can prevent that and even fix it a little bit if we teach them."

Dorcas focuses much of his research at Davidson on the effects of urbanization on amphibians and reptiles. Davidson students work with him to conserve those creatures.

Dorcas discussed the growing problem of invasive pythons. The Burmese python, a subspecies of the Indian python, has been sold as a pet in the U.S. for many years. Because the species can grow to more than 20 feet long, however, owners often become unwilling to keep them, and release them into the wild.

Released and escaped pythons have become a major issue in Florida's wetlands. Since 2000, the population of pythons there has been recognized as established, which means there are enough to mate easily and reproduce quickly. The python population has wreaked havoc on the ecosystem in the Everglades, dramatically reducing mammal populations and preying on endangered species such as the white ibis.

"In this case, the reptile is a problem, and we made it a problem," said Dorcas. "They can reproduce faster than we can find them."

The python population is expanding northward as it grows. Dorcas displayed a map showing that much of the southern U.S. has a climate inhabitable by pythons.

Will the python population ever expand all the way to the Carolinas?

Dorcas said there is no definitive answer. It could take anywhere from decades to thousands of years for pythons to come this far, if it ever happens at all.

In an experiment conducted during the winter of 2009-10 that tested how 10 male pythons would fare in a Carolina winter, all of them died in their enclosure in Aiken, S.C.

That winter was particularly cold. During the unusually warm winter the region is experiencing now, they probably would have survived, Dorcas said.

In a friendly climate, Burmese pythons are extremely resilient. Females lay up to 100 eggs every two years and guard the eggs until they hatch. When a baby hatches, it is already larger than most adult snakes native to Florida. Once large enough, their only predators there are alligators and humans.

Burmese pythons are constrictors, meaning they wrap around their prey to gain the upper hand.

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