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How could these large snakes change South Florida’s ecosystems? What about other ecosystems?

Most invasive reptiles and amphibians have not received research attention at a level that would allow in-depth evaluation of impacts. However, the most likely avenue for ecosystem change would be that introduced Burmese pythons or similar species would change food webs by depleting or eliminating vulnerable native species.  If enough species are lost, entire ecosystem processes could be changed.  For example, on the island of Guam, the introduced brown tree snake has eliminated most native vertebrates (birds, bats and lizards) that pollinate trees and flowers. Consequently, these native animals are not available to disperse seeds.   As a result, some native trees have greatly declined in abundance and may disappear.  Similarly, as fish-eating birds have been lost from Guam because of predation by the brown tree snake, the natural nitrogen transport from aquatic and marine systems to bird rookeries has been lost as well, with adverse implications for growth of nitrogen-dependent plants on the island.

Burmese pythons in the Everglades also accumulate mercury in unprecedented amounts, potentially poisoning higher-level predators that might eat the pythons, such as alligators and panthers. Researchers do not yet know how a specific ecosystem in South Florida will be – or is already being -- disrupted by the addition of a novel predator, but from experience with other ecosystems disrupted by introduced snakes, researchers know that serious disruption is a distinct possibility.  The severe mammal declines documented in the new study suggest that some degree of ecosystem disruption is probable. However, some disruptions might benefit other species; for example, turtles and some birds might experience greater hatching success of eggs due to the suppression of raccoons, which are regular nest robbers.

In another example, the federally endangered Key Largo woodrat, which occurs naturally only on Key Largo in the Upper Florida Keys, has lost much of its natural habitat to development, and is harmed by competition from introduced black rats, which are now many times more abundant than the native woodrat. A python on Key Largo has many black rats to eat, but will take native woodrats when the opportunity arises – in fact, several woodrats have been found in the guts of pythons on Key Largo despite the apparently low numbers of pythons that have reached the island. Woodrats may be more vulnerable to predation by large constrictors than non-native black rats because black rats arose in south Asia (in the presence of the pythons), whereas Key Largo woodrats arose on Key Largo, where pythons or large constrictors did not occur. Rats are a primary food for pythons, and if left unchecked, the pythons might become so numerous on Key Largo that the endangered woodrat population would be unable to survive python predation. This same pattern could be replicated for other endangered or at-risk species.

Tags: Ecosystems, Biodiversity, Native Species, Snakes, Ecology, Predator, Aquatic, Constrictors, Pythons