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Will Florida's Burmese pythons move north? How far?

Scientists brought 10 Burmese pythons to South Carolina to test the validity of one study that said the snakes could survive as far north as Washington, D.C.

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The state of Florida allows hunters to kill pythons and other invasive snakes on certain state lands — but warns them not to eat their quarry, after the discovery that Burmese pythons contain extremely high mercury levels.

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Other invaders

Compounding the problem are other giant non-native constrictors on the loose in South Florida. A smaller population of boa constrictors is known to be established, and last year researchers confirmed that African rock pythons were breeding just outside Everglades National Park, not too far from Miami. That species can grow to 20 feet and is notorious for its aggressive temper. A multi-agency effort to track and curtail the African rock python population before it can increase its range is under way, including a plan to enlist snake-sniffing dogs.

"We really don't know what the capability of that species is to spread. It seems to have similar characteristics to the Burmese python, so perhaps it could," said Christina Romagosa of Auburn University, who is helping with the African rock python survey effort.

Ban on snakes

Recent legal changes may offer some help. On July 1, Florida implemented a ban on importing or acquiring Burmese and African rock pythons and four other non-native snake species. People who owned these species before the ban went into effect can keep their animals if they microchip them and maintain a $100-per-year permit.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also proposed listing nine species of large constrictors as “injurious wildlife” under the federal Lacey Act, which would prohibit people from importing them or transporting them across state lines without a special permit. The service has collected more than 50,000 comments, and said a final decision could come next year.

As for Florida’s pythons, the genie is already out of the bottle. But it’s not too late to prevent the next invasion, considering how popular big snakes are in the pet trade, said Snow of Everglades National Park.

“We’re bringing them into the county under the idea that they’re all innocent until proven guilty. But we have historically had such a high standard of guilt, if you will, that it requires these animals to first of all escape, establish, get out in the wild, breed, and do something egregious like eat something that someone likes,” Snow said. “By then it’s way too late.”