Nine giant invasive snake species threaten U.S. ecosystems, study finds

Five giant non-native snake species would pose high risks to the health of ecosystems in the United States should they become established in the country, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said today.

A 300-page report prepared by the agency details the risks of nine non-native boa, anaconda and python species that are invasive or potentially invasive in the U.S.

Burmese-python-picture 11.jpg

Burmese python (Python molurus), a Giant Constrictor Snake

Photo courtesy of Roy Wood, National Park Service

“Because all nine species share characteristics associated with greater risks, none was found to be a low ecological risk,” USGS said in a statement released with the report.

Two of the giant snake species are documented as reproducing in the wild in South Florida, with population estimates for Burmese pythons in the tens of thousands, the agency noted.

burmese-python-and-alligator-picture.jpg

A Burmese python peeks over the head of an alligator that holds the python’s body in its mouth in Everglades National Park.

Photo courtesy of Lori Oberhofer, National Park Service

Small risk to people

Based on the biology and known natural history of the giant constrictors, individuals of some species may also pose a small risk to people, although most snakes would not be large enough to consider a person as suitable prey, USGS added.

“Mature individuals of the largest species—Burmese, reticulated, and northern and southern African pythons—have been documented as attacking and killing people in the wild in their native range, though such unprovoked attacks appear to be quite rare,” the report authors wrote. The snake most associated with unprovoked human fatalities in the wild is the reticulated python.

“The situation with human risk is similar to that experienced with alligators: attacks in the wild are improbable but possible.”

“The situation with human risk is similar to that experienced with alligators: attacks in the wild are improbable but possible.”

“This report clearly reveals that these giant snakes threaten to destabilize some of our most precious ecosystems and parks, primarily through predation on vulnerable native species,” said Robert Reed, a coauthor of the report and a USGS invasive species scientist and herpetologist.

Boa-constrictor-picture.jpg

Boa Constrictor (Boa constrictor) at a county park in southeastern Miami.

Photo courtesy of Mike Rochford, University of Florida.

USGS sorted the giant snakes into high-risk and medium-risk categories.

“High-risk species are Burmese pythons, northern and southern African pythons, boa constrictors, and yellow anacondas. High-risk species, if established in this country, put larger portions of the U.S. mainland at risk, constitute a greater ecological threat, or are more common in trade and commerce.

“Medium-risk species were reticulated python, DeSchauensee’s anaconda, green anaconda, and Beni anaconda. These species constitute lesser threats in these areas, but still are potentially serious threats.

“Because all nine species share characteristics associated with greater risks, none was found to be low-risk.”

Burmese-python-on-nest-photo.jpg

A female Burmese python on her nest with eggs. Photo by Jemeema Carrigan, University of Florida. Courtesy of Skip Snow, National Park Service

The USGS scientists who authored the report emphasized that native U.S. birds, mammals, and reptiles in areas of potential invasion have never had to deal with huge predatory snakes before, the agency said in its statement.

“Individuals of the largest three species reach lengths of more than 20 feet and upwards of 200 pounds. The reticulated python is the world’s longest snake, and the green anaconda is the heaviest snake. Both species have been found in the wild in South Florida, although breeding populations are not yet confirmed for either.

“Breeding populations have been confirmed in South Florida for Burmese pythons and the boa constrictor, and there is strong evidence that the northern African python may have a breeding population in the wild as well.”

burmese-python-being-measured-picture.jpg

Skip Snow (National Park Service) measures the length of a captured Burmese python at the South Florida Research Center, Everglades National Park.

Photo courtesy of Lori Oberhofer, NPS

“Compounding their risk to native species and ecosystems is that these snakes mature early, produce large numbers of offspring, travel long distances, and have broad diets that allow them to eat most native birds and mammals,” said Gordon Rodda, a USGS scientist at the Fort Collins Science Center and the other coauthor of the report.

“Boa constrictors and northern African pythons…already live wild in the Miami metropolitan area.”

In addition, he said, most of these snakes can inhabit a variety of habitats and are quite tolerant of urban or suburban areas. Boa constrictors and northern African pythons, for example, already live wild in the Miami metropolitan area.

Burmese-python-distribution-map.jpg

This map from the USGS report suggests how much of the United States has a climate suitable (green area) for the establishment of the Burmese python. 

Eradication is difficult

The report notes that there are no control tools yet that seem adequate for eradicating an established population of giant snakes once they have spread over a large area. “Making the task of eradication more difficult is that in the wild these snakes are extremely difficult to find since their camouflaged coloration enables them to blend in well with their surroundings,” USGS added.

yellow-anaconda-picture.jpg

Yellow anaconda (Eunectes notaeus) specimen captured at Big Cypress National Preserve. Photo courtesy of Skip Snow, National Park Service.

The lesson of Guam

“We have a cautionary tale with the American island of Guam and the brown treesnake,” said Reed. “Within 40 years of its arrival, this invasive snake has decimated the island’s native wildlife–10 of Guam’s 12 native forest birds, one of its two bat species, and about half of its native lizards are gone. The python introduction to Florida is so recent that the tally of ecological damage cannot yet be made.”

The researchers used the best available science to forecast areas of the country most at risk of invasion by these giant snakes, USGS said.

Southern-African-python-distribution-map.jpg

The USGS map shows where in the U.S. the climate is suitable for establishment of the southern African python.

“Based on climate alone, many of the species would be limited to the warmest areas of the United States, including parts of Florida, extreme south Texas, Hawaii, and America’s tropical islands, such as Puerto Rico, Guam, and other Pacific islands,” the agency said.

invasive-snakes-report-cover.jpg“For a few species, however, larger areas of the continental United States appear to exhibit suitable climatic conditions. For example, much of the southern U.S. climatic conditions are similar to those experienced by the Burmese python in its native range.

However, many factors other than climate alone can influence whether a species can establish a population in a particular location,” the report notes.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service will use the report to assist in further development of management actions concerning the snakes when and where these species appear in the wild.

In addition, the risk assessment will provide current, science-based information for management authorities to evaluate prospective regulations that might prevent further colonization of the U.S. by these snakes, USGS said.

Scientific names of the invasive giant snakes

Indian or Burmese python (Python molurus)

Northern African python (Python sebae)

Southern African python (Python natalensis)

Reticulated python (Python [or Broghammerus] reticulatus)

Boa constrictor (Boa constrictor)

Green anaconda (Eunectes murinus)

Yellow anaconda (Eunectes notaeus)

Beni or Bolivian anaconda (Eunectes beniensis)

De Schauensee’s anaconda (Eunectes deschauenseei)

Giant Constrictor Risk Assessment:

Frequently Asked Questions (USGS)

Wildlife

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn