11/30/2011 04:55 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2012

Pythons, Kitties, and Snails, Oh My! : Invasive Species Taking Over the Everglades

I remember the first news story I read about pythons in the Everglades. It was accompanied by a photo of a python who had dined on an alligator. Meal time did not end well for either one of them. After getting over my feeling of nausea from seeing a photo of the tail end of an alligator poking out of a torn python, I considered the following questions:

1) How did this python get into the Everglades? (I don't remember learning about the Pythons of the Everglades when I was a kid. Alligators, yes. Pythons, no.)
2) How is this problem being resolved? What can we do to help?

An "invasive" species is one that is aggressively adapting to its new digs in the Everglades. Invasive species compete with native species for food and other resources. Invasive species also dine on a buffet of native species. The Nile monitor, an invasive species, preys on pretty much anything that moves. When you can count an American crocodile as one of your prey, you're one bad reptile.

Invasive species have increased in the Everglades at an alarming rate. As of 2009, over 192 invasive animal species (not including insects) have made their home in the Everglades (Ferriter et al., 2009).

Pythons tend to get more headlines than their other invasive friends, but little guys like the island apple snail and Asiatic clam can cause just as much damage to the ecosystem of the Everglades.

(Cat people get ready, because you're not going to like this one.) Feral (and domestic) cats are one of the most detrimental invasive species in the Everglades. Domestic cats can become feral very quickly. All it takes is one escaped or "released" cat. The bird population in the Everglades is being obliterated by cats. Yes, cats like to hunt birds, and they don't really take into consideration if that bird is endangered or not.

How Did These Invasive Species Wind Up in the Everglades?

"Pet dumping" is the most frequent cause of invasive species being present in the Everglades. Keep in mind that just one python making a love connection in the swamp can start an epidemic. It is estimated that between 5,000 and 180,000 Burmese pythons currently live in the wilderness of South Florida (Rodda et al., 2007).

Miami is a major entry-point for the animal trade. Eighty percent of live animal shipments to Miami are imported from Africa, South America, and Europe (Burton, 2007). With more nonnative species arriving in Miami, there is a higher risk of invasive species appearing around the Everglades.

Nonnative marine animals hitch rides on ships and boats, and some nonnative animals arrive in Miami intended to be food. If you are a live animal destined for someone's plate, you can find a way to sneak out and make a life for yourself sans knife and fork.

We've also got a perfect climate and geography in South Florida for an invasive species to set up shop -- lots of water, lots of canals, warm temperatures year-round. What more could an invasive species want?

How Is This Problem Being Resolved?

• The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) sponsors a one-day "Nonnative Amnesty Day". Owners who no longer want or can care for their exotic animals can surrender them to the FWC without charges or penalties. Attempts are made to find homes for the surrendered pets. If you are interested in adopting a surrendered nonnative pet, click here.

Here are some things you can do to help the Everglades:

  • Spay and neuter cats. The fewer feral cats, the better chances of the native bird population making a comeback. (And while you're at it, get your dogs fixed too.)
  • Check your boat hull, propeller, and boat trailer for any plant or animal hitchhikers.
  • Don't dump aquariums into lakes, canals, or other bodies of water.

Just by practicing common courtesy and responsible pet ownership, you can help the Everglades fight invasive species.
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