Golf is sometimes accused of being a boring sport, but that's certainly not the case when two of Florida's top reptilian predators decide to pick a fight right there on the green! Earlier this month, golfers at the Fiddler's Creek Golf Club in Naples snapped photos of one such encounter.

"'Wild' day on the 10th hole today!" wrote Richard Nadler on Facebook. "That's an alligator and a Burmese python entwined. The alligator seems to have the upper hand."

In his snapshots, and another photo posted by Carolyn Maxim (shown below), the snake is wrapped partially around the gator's body, while the gator has caught part of the python in its jaws. Not a great position for either one of them...

Moments like this golf course face-off are an eye-catching sign of a deeper conflict going on in the state of Florida, of two reptilian predators vying for dominance in a very disturbed environment. Right now, it's not totally clear which one – if either – will come out on top.

Florida hosts a long list of invasive species, but Burmese pythons are among the most worrisome. At an average of 2-3m (6-9 ft) and a maximum recorded size in the state of over 5m (17ft), according to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission (FWC), these Asian snakes are apex predators and perhaps the only species in the state besides humans that can threaten a fully grown gator.

It's not known how often these pythons go after alligators – they much more commonly eat small mammals and birds – but it's definitely not unheard of. You might even recall the famous case of the snake that literally burst after swallowing a big specimen.

Since their introduction to Florida decades ago, Burmese pythons have become very abundant across the state, numbering at least several thousand and posing a very scary threat to local ecosystems. One FWC representative, Brian Norris, expressed enthusiasm at this golf-course gator's apparent "upper hand". 

"[W]e are encouraged by the prospect of a native Florida alligator consuming an invasive Burmese python," he said.

But how much do these big reptiles actually affect each other? Do the alligators, successful hunters on their own turf, keep python numbers at all in check? Do the snakes, the stealthy invaders, threaten gator populations with interactions like these?

"It's still not clear what the impact is on one or the other," said Adam Rosenblatt of the University of North Florida. But he noted that alligators will certainly eat the snakes, even though they aren't a native food source.

"Gators are very opportunistic predators and they'll pretty much try and eat anything that they can fit their mouth around," he explained.

Such showdowns between big adults, however, are probably not the worst of the conflicts between these two species. Much more damaging to the animals' populations, Rosenblatt said, would be if they are in the habit of eating each other's young or eggs. Right now, however, scientists don't know how often that might happen.

Another way the invasive snakes might hurt the gators is by taking their food. A recent study found a startling drop in numbers of small mammals – including raccoons, opossums, rabbits and bobcats – in the Everglades as the python invasion has spread. These species, and many other mammals and birds, are known prey items for the pythons, and also good sources of food for hungry gators.

"If the pythons are indeed taking out these smaller mammal species at large scales and over a long period of time, that could have an impact on the alligators," Rosenblatt said. "They could be competing for food in that way."



Top header image: Pixabay