Florida: Think sharks are scary? There’s a new critter swimming in Biscayne Bay

South Florida’s most aggressive invasive species has found a new way to grab headlines: slither atop a research platform in Biscayne Bay. Last month, a kayaker spied a 9-foot Burmese python wrapped around part of a platform more than a half mile offshore in Biscayne National Park usually inhabited by sunning cormorants. The sighting was a first for the park and another worrisome sign that the state’s out-of-control pythons are getting more adept at inhabiting the state’s salty fringes. In September, state wildlife biologists confirmed for the first time that the snakes are now breeding in the Keys. “It’s another raising of the notch in the war against pythons,” said University of Florida wildlife biologist Frank Mazzotti. “When you actually see something like this, how often does it occur that you don’t see it?” Swimming snakes are not unheard of. A 2015 study by the U.S. Geological Society tracking pythons for five years found they lived in both freshwater marshes and mangroves around Cape Sable. Scientists suspect at least some of the adult snakes that started breeding in Key Largo swam there. Finding a snake on a platform just confirms the snakes are equally comfortable in open water, Mazzotti said. “To find one swimming is not surprising and it probably, in the course of swimming, spied that platform and said, ‘Ah, this is a good place to get out in the sun,’” he said. It also means the snakes could make their way to islands inhabited by birds or other small mammals and occasional turtle nests. Six of the park’s islands, including Mangrove Key and the Arsenickers about five miles to the south, annually attract nesting birds, mostly cormorants but also herons, egrets, ibises and roseate spoonbills. And any island big enough to support mammals could be a target for pythons. The 2015 USGS study found the snakes tended to congregate around tree islands in the Everglades, where birds nest. A day after the kayaker reported the sighting on the platform — located north of the Mowry Canal and used by the South Florida Water Management District to monitor water quality — district python wrangler Bobby Hill snagged it, said park biologist Vanessa McDonough. The snake is now being used to educate the public about invasive species.

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