Report: Florida's Snake Invasion Choking Ecosystem

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Giant, exotic snakes including boas, anacondas and pythons have been moving into southern Florida and a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey says they're creating a great risk to the health of ecosystems there. Liane Hansen speaks with Gordon Rodda about the new study by the U.S. Geological Survey, "Risks of Giant Invasive Snakes in the U.S."

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Giant, exotic snakes have been moving into southern Florida - but they're not welcome. A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey says these snakes are creating a great risk to the health of the ecosystems there.

Gordon Rodda co-authored the report and he joins us from member station KGNU in Boulder, Colorado. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. GORDON RODDA (Co-author, U.S. Geological Survey): My pleasure.

HANSEN: So, how are these snakes getting into the wild? Why are they making their home in southern Florida?

Dr. RODDA: Well, the avenue for them getting to the U.S. is almost exclusively the pet trade. And the way they get into the wild is a little bit uncertain, but it undoubtedly is connected with people that either have snakes that escape or get released.

HANSEN: So are you saying that people buy small snakes, they grow big, and then it's not easy to take care of them?

Dr. RODDA: That's really the crux of the problem. The maximum size of some of these is in excess of 20 feet. So they end up requiring very large food items and lots of room to house them, and that becomes a problem for people. And unfortunately, there really isn't a good place to take their snakes.

HANSEN: How do they threaten the ecosystem?

Dr. RODDA: They are a kind of predatory threat that most prey have never experienced before. They are so different that oftentimes, prey don't have a defense mechanism for avoiding them. The classic example is the situation with the brown tree snake in Guam, where the birds in Guam had never evolved with a nocturnal arboreal snake, the one that's climbing around in the trees in the dark.

And birds don't like to fly in the dark because they can't really see where they're going and they break a wing if they run into something, then they're really in bad shape. And the snake was able to take advantage of this reluctance on the part of the birds. The long and short of it is, before the snake was done, it eliminated almost all of the birds of Guam, most of the lizards, and most of the bats as well.

HANSEN: Other than the Everglades, which, I mean, seems to be a natural habitat for some of these snakes, where are these big constrictors living?

Dr. RODDA: Almost every kind of habitat, from desert to deep forest to swamps to mountain areas - potentially living almost anywhere in the warmer parts of the U.S.

HANSEN: Really? I mean, Miami metropolitan area, there are these big snakes?

Dr. RODDA: There are. There's several populations of big snakes in the Miami metropolitan area. In addition, we find that broad swaths of the southern U.S. have a climate that matches at least some of the species, reaching all the way up the East Coast into the Washington area, but not quite to it at this point. But climate change might change that.

HANSEN: I guess I should thank you for the heads up there, right? So, people have snakes and they can't keep them. What do they do with them - or is there anything that can be done?

Dr. RODDA: There are Internet sources that would help connect a person who has a pet with someone who wants a pet of that sort. It's certainly worth calling the humane society in your area. Pest control operators and/or in some areas such as Miami, there's a poison control center that will pick up snakes.

HANSEN: Would you recommend snakes as pets anyway?

Dr. RODDA: Well, I think snakes are really interesting animals, and many people can learn a great deal from watching them, but I wouldn't recommend a specific pet in general. I would say that that really depends on their life situation and so forth. And it's all too tempting to see an animal that's really beautiful and say, oh, I've got to have one of those. But do your homework first.

HANSEN: Gordon Rodda co-wrote the U.S. Geological Survey report "Risk of Giant Invasive Snakes in the U.S." He joined us from member station KGNU in Boulder, Colorado. Gordon, thank you very much.

Dr. RODDA: My pleasure.

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