OK, so strictly speaking this has nothing to do with the Sea, except insofar as the Everglades are a semi-aquatic environment that drains at some remove into salt water. Still, it involves a large cold-blooded predator exhibiting a classic ecological interaction in a vivid and, well, somewhat appalling way. Which is good enough for me.
Some background: when I was a lad, I was a big fan of Golden Nature Guides, which I‘ve waxed on about at some length previously. Several years ago, when my own son was going through the obligatory herpetophile phase that youngish boys (and some girls, I gather) go through, we were leafing through the nature books at our local chain bookstore. My nostalgic trip down memory lane took a skid off the rails when I noticed about 5 extra pages at the end of the species accounts, added to cover a menagerie of strange snakes and lizards that had not been in my 1960s-era Golden Guide to reptiles. But the kicker was that the little inset range maps, which were a classic and revolutionary feature of the Golden Guides, for all of these interlopers consisted of a little purple semi-circle around the city of Miami. An infection point if you will, looking somewhat ominous.
Fast forward to a few years ago, when I was hunting shrimp down in the Florida Keys. As we turned our whaler into one of the canals that criss-cross through the low scrubby islands, I see a huge vaguely dinosaurish (well not that huge) animal swimming across the canal. I recognized it immediately as a green iguana, immigrant from Central America and now well established in south Florida. The thing must have been three feet long without the tail. They are everywhere now. Who knows what rippling indirect effects the appetites of these critters might have on the ecosystem of their new home?
Which brings me, at last, to my main story. The Burmese Python. As the name implies, these rather frightfully large snakes hail from southeast Asia — specifically Burma, as it was poetically known back in the day when mustachioed English blokes with monocles roamed the colonies pillaging wildlife and tossing back gin-and-tonics to stave off malaria in the beastly tropical heat. The python is a staple of the pet trade. but it is deceptive, since the pythons one sees in pet stores are about a foot and a half long and an inch thick and eat mice. But, like kittens, they don’t stay that way. And neither, alas, do young herpetophiles, who eventually become interested in computers, girls, baseball, girls, and . . . you get the picture. Probably those purplish infections in south Florida are due in large part to pet-lovers tiring of keeping malodorous rodent cultures in their basement to satisfy the predatory snake rapidly outgrowing its 30-gallon aquarium, and make the seemingly noble gesture of turning the cramped creature loose into the great outdoors. When this happens in Minnesota it’s the end of the line. But south Florida is a quite hospitable place for reptiles, not unlike Burma in certain ways, albeit with more convenience stores and hummers. And so, they have accumulated there, and prospered.
With a vengeance it appears. Here’s the story as reported by Discovery News:
“At just under 16 feet long and originally weighing about 140 pounds, a Burmese python in Florida managed to catch and swallow a 76-pound deer. After the snake ate its prey, according to the South Florida Water Management District, its girth measured close to 4 feet. . . . Slitting open the snake gave biologists and the public a unique opportunity to see the eating habits of these enormous reptiles. And the most graphic pictures are pretty compelling.”
I can’t quite bring myself to post the photos of what happened next on a family-friendly website but if you’re 18 you may proceed to the Daily Mail for the gory photos. Then there’s the python that died trying to swallow an alligator (no I am not making this up — photographic evidence here). Hard to believe.