Could Invasive Burmese Pythons Soon Be on the Menu in Florida?

The pythons have devastated the Everglades, and eating them could help control their growing population

A close-up photo of a Burmese python in grass. It is coiled up in the grass, and it has dark brown splotches on light brown scales.
Scientists estimate that the snakes are responsible for decimating 90 to 99 percent of the small mammal population, and they're also known to strangle deer, alligators and birds. Bryan Falk, USGS via Wikimedia Public Domain

In Florida, scientists are trying to determine if Burmese pythons—an invasive snake species wreaking havoc on the Everglades—are safe to eat. If so, they could soon end up on dinner plates across the state, reports Alaa Elassar for CNN.

Researchers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the state's department of health are in the process of testing mercury levels in the snakes' tissue to determine if they are safe to eat, reports Jared Leone for Cox Media Group. The researchers have their fingers crossed that the snakes are safe to eat, which could alleviate the struggle to eradicate the species from the Everglades.

"Mercury bioaccumulates in the environment and you will find high levels of mercury at the top of the food chain where pythons have unfortunately positioned themselves," Mike Kirkland, the manager of the Python Elimination Program, tells CNN. "We expect the results are going to discourage the public from consuming pythons, but if we can determine that they are safe to eat, that would be very helpful to control their population."

Burmese pythons blend right into the Everglades' tall grasses and muddy marshes, but they certainly do not belong there. Exotic pet dealers once imported the pythons from Southeast Asia to Miami, a major hub in the pet trade, and sold them as pets. At some point, owners started releasing their giant pet snakes into the wild, and the first one was caught in the Everglades in 1979, according to The Nature Conservancy. Now, tens of thousands slither through the marshes, devouring small native mammals like marsh rabbits, opossums and raccoons.

Scientists estimate the snakes are responsible for decimating 90 to 99 percent of the small mammal population, Ian Frazier reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2019. They're also known to strangle deer, alligators and birds.

The Python Elimination Program was launched by the South Florida Water Management District in 2017 to save the Everglades' collapsing ecosystem, and it enlists contractors to capture the invasive snakes. More than 6,000 snakes have been removed so far, and if they are labeled safe to eat, the captured snakes could soon end up on dinner plates across the state.

Donna Kalil, who hunts pythons for the Python Elimination Program, tells Lauren Edmonds for Insider that when the pythons are cooked properly, they can be quite delicious. She has a home kit to test a snake's mercury levels, and if it's safe to eat, she'll whip up some sliders, jerky or pasta.

"It's a great source of protein, so if we can find a safe way to use the whole animal and not just the skin, it might encourage more people to get involved in saving the Everglades," she tells Adriana Brasileiro for the Miami Herald.

This idea of turning invasive species into scrumptious meals isn't new, and innovative restaurants across the American South have pioneered the "invasivore" movement, reports Eve Conant for National Geographic. Chefs have turned invasive species like feral hogs, swamp rats, lionfish and Asian carp into delectable meals. It's a win-win for environmentalists and biologists. The animals are caught in the wild instead of being raised in factory farms and harvesting them also helps restore native ecosystems. And if Burmese pythons are cleared to eat, chefs in Florida may soon join the invasivore movement, too.