Florida wildlife officials have been saying for years that invasive Burmese pythons pose a huge problem for the state’s wildlife, but exactly how huge came into shocking focus with the recent capture of a record-setting female that stretched nearly 18 feet, weighed 215 pounds, and contained the remains of an adult deer in its digestive tract. A group of python trackers at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, who captured the snake in December, say it is the largest python ever recorded outside its native habitat.
The team found the giant python with the help of a “snitch snake,” a male python that carries a surgically implanted transmitter, according to a report from Eyewitness News 7. By releasing these snitches (also called “scout snakes”) into the wild during breeding season, scientists can use the transmitters to locate female pythons after the males track them down.
“Large reproductive female pythons are very important to remove from these ecosystems,” Sarah Funck, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), told National Geographic magazine, which reported the capture. Funck notes that big females can produce dozens of young each year. Researchers who examined the Florida snake during a necropsy in April found 122 eggs inside the python, which measured more than 2-feet across at its widest point and had a head that was nearly 6 inches long. According to FWC, the average size of a Burmese python in Florida is 8 to 10 feet.
Scientists also found hoof cores in the python’s digestive tract, indicating that its last meal was an adult whitetail deer. The nonvenomous constrictors—which are native to Asia—were introduced into Florida via the pet trade in the 1970s and have thrived in the Everglades, where they prey on a wide range of native mammals, birds, and reptiles but have no natural predators to keep them in check.
The state of Florida is doing its best to change that, with FWC developing multiple programs to encourage the removal of pythons. A Python Action Team pays hunters, anglers and outdoor recreationists to capture and humanely dispatch pythons; a Python Patrol Program offers free training with live pythons to create a network of people who can identify, report, and capture the snakes; and a Detector Dog Team deploys canines to sniff out pythons in the wild. The state also annually sponsors the Florida Python Challenge, a 10-day competition each August that awards prizes for the most pythons removed from Florida public lands and for the longest python captured. The snakes can also be killed year-round and without a permit on 25 public lands in south Florida and on private land with the landowner’s permission.
In its native range, which stretches from India to lower China and throughout the Malay Peninsula, pythons have been known to reach lengths of 26 feet and exceed 200 pounds. Before the December capture, the heaviest python captured outside that area weighed 185 pounds. Even the trackers who nabbed the new record-holder were surprised by the snake’s heft once they got it on a scale, according to National Geographic. “I’m reading 215 pounds,” said Ian Bartoszek, a wildlife biologist and manager of the project. “That was kind of a line in the sand. We wondered if we’d ever cross 200 pounds. It raised the bar.”