Florida's Burmese pythons have certainly made a splash since they arrived on the scene over a decade ago. More than 2,000 of these invasive snakes have been removed in that time, but over in the state's Big Cypress Preserve, some of the largest culprits are still causing problems.
While cruising through the park, Palm Beach Post staff writer Joe Capozzi watched on as a 15-foot (4.5m) snake took down an alligator in nearby swampy waters.
"The gator was visible only in brief glimpses as it rolled through the water against its will," he writes. "Its pale belly, its clawed limbs, its thrashing tail. About six feet long, it was at the full mercy of the python. It moved like a slinky on steroids, slowly squeezing the life from the gator."
After this initial clash, the battle seemed to have ended, but several minutes later, the gator surfaced once more. "Its jaws opened and closed, biting at nothing, before its head disappeared into the murky depths," says Capozzi. "Then, like a periscope, the python's head silently breached the surface and surveyed its surroundings. Just below, its coiled body with those distinctive giraffe spots could be seen in what I assumed was a fatal embrace with the alligator."
It's not clear whether the snake attempted to eat the alligator, but similar predatory events have been witnessed in the Everglades before. Pythons in Australia, meanwhile, do occasionally snack on crocodiles. It's also a mystery how the reptilian skirmish began, but thanks to Capozzi's video, park biologists are digging deeper to find out.
The pythons might be large, but they're not easy to track down. For starters, these animals boast what's been dubbed "elite level" camouflage, and their adopted turf is often hard for humans to navigate.
"By preying on native wildlife and competing with other native predators, pythons are seriously impacting the natural order of south Florida's ecological communities," explains the National Park Service, which has been working to manage the invasive snakes since 2002. "Burmese pythons will likely never be eradicated from the area."
Unsurprisingly, the python proliferation has led to a notable decline in the native mammals that make up the snakes' preferred prey. But in recent years, scientists have also expressed concern that other reptiles – and even other snakes – are at risk, too.
The longest native snake in North America is the Eastern indigo snake, which reaches some eight feet (2.4m) when fully grown. "Burmese pythons, by contrast, can reach a maximum length of approximately 26 feet," notes snake biologist Dr David Steen. "They are from Asia and are likely here because of the pet trade; owners have either purposefully or accidentally allowed their pythons to escape." Steen, who has done extensive work on indigo snake recovery, says the lengthier intruders could be competing with indigos for food and space.
It's for that reason that Steen and other biologists have opted to participate in the Python Challenge, an annual competition that tasks registered teams with capturing as many pythons as possible during the event. Such efforts are vital to preserving Florida's biodiversity.
And pythons are not the only culprits – Florida's invasive lineup includes 500 species of plants and animals. The most recent addition, the Nile crocodile, hails all the way from Africa. But even those remote origins are not a one-off in the Sunshine State – among the region's most problematic invasives is the giant African land snail.
At the time of posting, the Big Cypress python was still at large, but we'll bring you updates as we get them.
Top header image: Everglades NPS/Flickr