Deep in the Florida Everglades, a team from the Conservancy of Southwest Florida made a shocking discovery when they came upon a sight they will likely never forget. The biggest Burmese python the team of three had ever laid their eyes on was just mere feet from them.
Although the snake was captured in December, scientists only announced the discovery this past Tuesday after National Geographic recently published an exclusive article on the python.
According to the conservancy, this Burmese python broke the invasive species record for the largest ever caught in Florida. The nearly 18-foot python weighed in at a whopping 215 pounds, about the size of a shipping container and shattering the 2016 record of 140 pounds. And that’s not the only record for Sunshine State snakes: This female python was also pregnant and was carrying 122 eggs.
Led by environmental science project manager Ian Bartoszek, the team that captured the python included biologist Ian Easterling and intern Kyle Findley. To locate female snakes, the group uses male snakes, called “scout snakes,” which are typically smaller than the females and easier to find. The team can locate the female snakes by tracking the scout snakes as they look for a mate.
When trying to locate one of the scout snakes, named Dion, in December, the team heard a rustle in a nearby brush. Trying to locate the noise, the crew spotted the python – significantly larger than Dion – and without skipping a beat, all three jumped on the extremely large reptile to restrain it.
After wrestling with the snake for roughly 20 minutes, the team was able to carry it back to the truck, Easterling said in a press conference on Wednesday.
“She put up a pretty good fight,” Easterling said, adding that the snake balled up her tail and took a swing at the team. Findley, the intern, dogged a swipe from the python, but Easterling wasn’t as lucky and got slapped in the face with her tail.
In 2014, Bartoszek and his team were shocked when they found the first 100-pound python, which at the time was considered to be on the larger end of the scale. Two years later, the team discovered the 140-pound Burmese python, which held the record for the largest of its species in the state — until recently.
“We don’t really consider pythons big until they top 100 pounds, so now I need a new description for a 200-pound python,” Bartoszek said. “It’s just next level for us.”
The conservancy has been following and capturing pythons to protect the native species of the Everglades for nearly a decade. Being able to capture and study these unique creatures allows Bartoszek and his team to better understand how many more of these pythons might be in the wild and what their diet consists of.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), researchers estimate that tens of thousands of pythons thrive in Florida.
When asked about how old the snake was, Bartoszek explained that Burmese pythons don’t necessarily grow by age but rather by consumption. Studying the massive python resembles a crime scene, Bartoszek said, as the researchers look through the contents of the python’s stomach to determine the snake’s diet.
“The last meal this animal had was a white-tailed deer,” Bartoszek said, noting that most pythons are big-game hunters.
And this python isn’t the first to prey on deer. In fact, the white-tailed deer population has been dwindling since pythons took over the Everglades. As a result of the python’s overconsumption of white-tailed deer, the Florida panther population, which also fed on the white-tailed deer, has decreased and is now considered endangered, The New York Times reported.
According to the USGS, several other mammal declines in the Everglades have been linked to the Burmese python. In 2015, a study confirmed that the Burmese python is now the top predator in the Everglades, taking the spot from Florida’s native alligator.
“It’s just unbelievable what they will ravage when they’re there,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a press conference June 17. “These snakes are destroying the natural food chain, and you can’t have a healthy environment without a healthy food chain.”
After being introduced to the Everglades in the 1980s as a result of the exotic pet trade, Burmese pythons have thrived in the environment, the Times reported. However, owners did not know what to do with the pythons once they became too big to manage, and many released them into the wild.
The USGS describes the Burmese python as “one of the most concerning invasive species in the Everglades National Park.”
The Burmese pythons, originally from Southeast Asia, have genetically adapted to their new environment in Florida’s Everglades. Taking the pythons out of the Everglades poses a real challenge, officials said.
DeSantis said more than $3 million has been put toward the removal of pythons in Florida. To remove more pythons more efficiently, contractors have been using the money from the state to develop better tools and technology to detect these large snakes.
“The Everglades, of course, is a diverse ecosystem and we are protecting this ecosystem in a variety of different ways,” DeSantis said.
“This challenge allows the public to engage direct hands-on in Everglades restoration,” DeSantis said. “You can win prizes and of course, you will be doing a public service.”