Boa constrictors in Florida

Bill Booth of Bradenton, Fla., stretches out a dead Burmese python on Jan. 19, 2013. He caught the reptile for students from the University of Florida to measure in the Florida Everglades as part of the month longThey eat everything, from bunnies to gators. They are almost impossible to spot in the wild, making their exact numbers just as elusive. And they are destroying one of the nation’s most precious ecological treasures.

Huge snakes have invaded Florida’s Everglades – and to researchers and policymakers alike, they are an enormous problem.

“The Burmese pythons are unique in that they’re an apex predator species, ” said Phil Andreozzi of the National Invasive Species Council, meaning they are at the top of the heap, with no natural predators of their own. “They’re eating deer ... They’re eating wood storks. They’re devastating the raccoons and rabbits.”

The list of prey goes on, and Andreozzi said the cascading impacts of the snakes’ eclectic eating habits make their threat to the environment both considerable and difficult to predict.

The Burmese pythons — which can grow to be 23 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds — are a small part of a nationwide invasive species dilemma. A 2005 Cornell University study found the U.S. spends more than $120 billion each year dealing with 50, 000 introduced species of plants, animals and microbes.

Every region has its own problem, Andreozzi said — from kudzu in Georgia to quagga and zebra mussels in the Great Lakes. Coiling kudzu vines are known as “the vine that ate the South, ” while the pesky shellfish latch onto boats and damage their motors.

Researchers point to the damage the Burmese python has done as a cautionary tale, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeks public comment on listing five additional snake species — boa constrictors, reticulated pythons and three species of anacondas — as injurious wildlife. Doing so would ban their import or transportation across state lines without a permit. The Burmese python, Northern and Southern African pythons, and yellow anaconda are already listed as injurious.

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