Since the late 1970s, invasive Burmese pythons have been wreaking havoc on southwest Florida, gobbling up native species and harming the area’s biodiversity. With no natural predators to keep the population in check and plenty of tasty animals to feast upon, the pythons are getting bigger and more fertile.
Now, biologists say they’ve captured the heaviest snake ever found in Florida: A 215-pound, 18-foot-long Burmese python that had likely eaten an entire adult white-tailed deer for her last meal. Biologists also found 122 eggs developing inside the snake, which they believe is a new record for the number of eggs a female python can produce during a single breeding cycle. An average clutch is around 43 eggs, officials said at a June 22 news briefing.
Scientists with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, tracked down and humanely euthanized the monster snake as part of the organization’s efforts to curb the invasive python population in the Florida Everglades. Native to southeast Asia, Burmese pythons have been gaining ground in southwest Florida since 1979, when the first snake was likely released by a pet owner or escaped into the wild, according to the nonprofit Nature Conservancy.
Though it's impossible to know for sure, biologists believe the large female they recently captured could be the original python that found her way into the wilderness decades ago, reports Amy Bennett Williams for the Fort Myers News-Press.
Since then, the snakes have been thriving in the Everglades—so much so that biologists now ask members of the public to help them hunt for pythons every August. Participants can compete for various prizes, including $2,500 for capturing the most pythons during a two-week stretch. Last year, more than 600 people from 25 states hunted the snakes.
These and other python control efforts have been successful. Since 2013, scientists and citizen hunters have removed more than 1,000 of the snakes from a 100-square-mile region of southwest Florida. Biologists captured the previous record-holder—a female python that weighed 185 pounds—in June 2021.
Scientists, in particular, tend to focus their efforts on removing large, reproductive females to help disrupt the breeding cycle. To hunt this mammoth female snake, biologists deployed a male “scout” snake named Dionysus, or Dion for short, equipped with an implanted radio transmitter. Dion led researchers right to the large female, which wrestled with the biologists for about 20 minutes before finally surrendering.
“How do you find the needle in the haystack? You could use a magnet and, in a similar way, our male scout snakes are attracted to the biggest females around,” says Ian Bartoszek, a wildlife biologist with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, in a statement.
After hauling the snake through the trees to a field truck, researchers took her to a lab for a necropsy. In addition to the 122 eggs, they also found hoof cores, which suggests she swallowed a deer somewhat recently. When stretched out, the snake's length was equal to the height of a giraffe, reports Insider’s Alia Shoaib.
Over the years, researchers have found dozens of other types of wildlife inside the stomachs of pythons, including 24 species of mammals, 47 species of birds and two species of reptiles. Pythons have contributed to the decline of some mammal species, including marsh rabbits, cottontail rabbits, foxes, racoons, opossums and bobcats, particularly in remote parts of Everglades National Park, per the U.S. Geological Survey.
“This is the wildlife issue of our time for southern Florida,” says Bartoszek in the statement.