“That was unexpected. I kept looking at the data to make sure what I was seeing was correct.”
That excellent opening line for a horror movie is actually a frightening introduction to a new study that was looking for signs that Florida’s invasive Burmese python might be growing smaller and weaker due to inbreeding and a lack of diversity. Instead, they discovered that inbreeding has had no negative affect on them. Even worse, they found indications that Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) are crossbreeding with Indian pythons (P. molurus) to create an Everglades super-snake with the worse tendencies and traits of both. Which will come first: the movie or the real-life horror of the hybrid python monster?
“It’s quite interesting and quite surprising, but we don’t know the extent it’s in the population.”
Those quotes in a Miami Hearld report are from Margaret Hunter, lead author of the study published last week in Ecology and Evolution and a USGS geneticist with a movie-perfect name (played by Jennifer Lawrence?). The study’s purpose was to map the DNA of Florida’s ever-spreading swamp-loving Burmese python population, which was first noticed in the 1980s, became a dominant species in the Everglades National Park and spread north into water conservation areas, west into Big Cypress and south to the Keys. Hunter was hoping to use the DNA signatures to determine the top breeding areas and potentially stop those snakes from sending offspring to new areas.
Instead, they found the super-snake.
“When two species come together they each have a unique set of genetic traits and characteristics they use to increase their survival and their unique habitats and environments.”
Hunter told The Guardian that the researchers found 13 Burmese pythons with genetic signatures from
the Indian rock python, a smaller, but faster and more aggressive species that prefers higher, drier land and has not been know to breed in its native land with Burmese pythons, preferring instead to kill and eat them. That’s not the case in Florida, where the researchers fear this cross-breeding has created snakes with “hybrid vigor” or heterosis – physical and survival enhancements making them better than either parent.
How many of these supersnakes are already swimming in the swamps and climbing on the rocks of Florida? The study tested 400 Burmese pythons and found 13 with the genetic signatures of the Indian pythons. It’s estimated that the state’s python population is 150,000 … and growing. You can do the math. OK, it’s around 4,900.
Is there any good news? Not really. Hunter says that it’s unclear whether the cross-breeding occurred in the wild or if it was the product of experiments by unscrupulous breeders. And even if they can find the Burmese-Indian ground-zero python, all of these invasive snakes are breeding and spreading faster than wildlife officials can contain them. While scientists like Hunter are rightly thrilled that “we’re watching evolutionary progress right in front of us,” the rest of the state is wondering if it’s time to give up and change the mascot of one of its college football teams to the Super Pythons.
Meanwhile, perhaps Florida’s food trucks and taco stands should start working on python recipes.