Lung-destroying parasite found in Burmese pythons spreading to Florida's native snakes

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Burmese pythons eat our protected birds, deer and even alligators. 

Small to medium-size mammals have become hard to find in the historic Everglades in recent years because the voracious predators are so successful here. 

But not only are they wiping out native wildlife by eating it, Burmese pythons have also spread a lung-destroying parasite to some of Florida's native snakes. 

Donna Kalil captures a Burmese python in the Everglades west of Homestead. The invasive snakes have taken over parts of the Everglades. The state is trying to eradicate them with hunts and other means.

And unlike the Burmese python, the parasite, known as Raillietiella orientalis, will not be limited by winter temperatures because it lives inside the hosts. 

"Unfortunately, our native snakes a very vulnerable to infection from this parasite," said Melissa Miller, a University of Florida researcher who put out a paper on the topic recently. "(Native snakes) are more likely to have the parasite than a Burmese python. And they’re more likely to have more of the parasite in them."

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Miller said the parasite is actually more problematic in native Florida snakes because they didn't evolve with the parasite, like the Burmese python did. 

So Burmese pythons do carry the parasite, but not as often and not to the extent that some native species have experienced. 

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"(The parasites) were able to obtain greater body lengths in native snakes than Burmese pythons," Miller said. "And the females lay eggs, and the longer they are the more eggs they can lay." 

Burmese pythons first appeared in the Everglades National Park area in the 1970s and 1980s.

By 2000, they had established a breeding population across much of South Florida. 

Today, there are government hunting programs aimed at limiting the population growth or perhaps even chipping away at overall python numbers. 

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But the hunters bring in a small fraction of the actual python population, which extends as far north as Lake Okeechobee. 

Now the Burmese pythons are attacking from a different angle. 

"There are some worrying signs based on the data collected that the native species are quite good hosts for the parasite," said David Clementi Outerbridge, with the University of Florida's agriculture extension. "There are many different forms of parasitic relationships. And snakes that are familiar with the parasites develop resistance and tolerance, but this parasite is not beneficial to the hosts.

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And it is important to note that this is a parasite that has never existed in the U.S., until now, which means that the native snakes are not as yet adapted to cope with the parasitic load." 

What's possibly worse: the parasite has already expanded beyond the range of the actual python that brought the parasite to North America. 

"I looked at areas where there are no established pythons and I found several native snakes that were affected there," Miller said. "Pythons are generally thought of as a Florida problem, but you can see the impacts of an invasive species can range far beyond its habitat." 

An invasive Burmese python is seen in the  Everglades west of Miami on Monday October, 28, 2019. It was captured by python hunter, Donna Kalil.

Miller goes back to the lack of smaller mammals in the area and hopes Florida's native snakes don't face the same fate. 

"You used to see marsh rabbits (in and around Everglades National Park) and you don’t see them anymore, and that’s a direct effect of an invasive species," Miller said. "But the indirect effects are less noticeable and harder to observe." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadGillisNP on Twitter.