Hi, my name is Brent and I am the Centennial Volunteer Ambassador for Everglades National Park.


Wayne Rassner, python patrol guide, with SCA-intern Tatiana.
Wayne Rassner, python patrol guide, with SCA-intern Tatiana.

It is 8:00PM and dark outside. Although it is not raining, lightning from the vast distance occasionally lights up the dark, open sky at the northern Shark Valley District of Everglades National Park. My co-SCA intern, Tatiana, and I just parked the car outside the Visitor Center gates and are walking down the dirt road hoping to meet our python patrol guide, Wayne Rassner. We see a government van stopped outside the park office and spot Wayne inside the car; he is not what we expected him to be.

One of the many above water chickee campgrounds throughout the Wilderness Waterway Trail. Photo Source: nationalgeographic.com
One of the many above water chickee campgrounds throughout the Wilderness Waterway Trail.
Photo Source: nationalgeographic.com

Wayne is a corporate real estate lawyer from Kendall, a suburb south of Miami, who happens to volunteer his nights to track the highly invasive and prolific Burmese python (Python molurus bivitattus). Although people of his profession are likened to snakes, Wayne is a personable naturalist and adventurer at heart. Twice, Wayne has solo paddled Everglades National Park’s tour de force, the Wilderness Waterway Trail. The waterway trail stretches 99-miles along alligator, crocodile, and shark-infested brackish waters from the northwestern Gulf Coast District to the southern Flamingo district. This epic journey requires at least eight-days to complete and all equipment, food, and water has to be ported and taken back out – leave no trace behind. Those who dare to take on this task, get the pleasant (or unpleasant) opportunity to camp at the many above water chickee campgrounds.

Non-native, invasive Burmese python (Python molurus bivitattus)
Non-native, invasive Burmese python (Python molurus bivitattus)

Growing up in southern Florida, Wayne has always been a herpetology enthusiast since he was a child. He is one of the few people who are authorized by the Department of Interior to handle and track down the Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park. His love for the park extends beyond his python patrol duties; he is also a member of the South Florida National Park Trust which fundraises for Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Dry Tortugas National Park.

Non-native, invasive Burmese python color morphs found in the exotic pet trade. Photo Source: usark.org
Non-native, invasive Burmese python color morphs found in the exotic pet trade.
Photo Source: usark.org

The invasive Burmese python have encroached on most of Everglades National Park, parts of Big Cypress, and even as far south as Key Largo. True to their namesake, these snakes are native to the Southeast Asian country of Burma, now modern-day Myanmar. They were imported to the United States through the exotic pet trade. The Burmese python were very attractive snakes to buyers due to their aesthetics and gentle personality. They have a very intricate skin pattern and have various morphs, or color variations, such as green, marbled, piebald, or albino.

Out of the reptile exotic pet trade’s “big five”, which also includes red-tailed boas (Boa constrictor), green anacondas (Eunectes murinus), reticulated pythons (Python reticulatus), and African rock pythons (Python sebae), Burmese pythons are considered the docile, gentle giants. They can easily reach up to 20-feet, weigh more than 200-pounds, and have a girth the size of a telephone pole. Florida is a major hub for this exotic pet trade and most herpetology enthusiasts do not plan ahead to the future when their newly acquired baby Burmese python outgrows them. Often, Burmese python owners will get overwhelmed or outgrow their reptile pet and release them into the wild.

Hypothetical Burmese python diet to reach 13-feet at Everglades National Park.
Hypothetical Burmese python diet to reach 13-feet at Everglades National Park.

A hypothetical diet for an introduced Burmese python to react 13-feet in Everglades National Park includes: one raccoon, one opossum, four five-feet alligators, five American coots, six little blue herons, eight ibises, 10 squirrels, 15 rabbits, 15 wrens, 30 cotton rats, and 72 mice. Their voracious appetite has been associated to the rapid decline of small mammals in Everglades National Park. This is highly concerning since the reduction of small mammals also reduces the biodiversity of the ecosystem and has strong, long-lasting negative impacts that are often irreversible.

Native green water snake (Nerodia cyclopion) Photo Source: srelherp.uga.edu
Native green water snake (Nerodia cyclopion)
Photo Source: srelherp.uga.edu

The good news is that during our three-hour python patrol on Monday, August 17, 2015, we only found four native water snakes. The first one we saw was the green water snake (Nerodia cyclopion), followed by two banded water snakes (Nerodia fasciata), and finally the brown water snake (Nerodia taxispilota). All four water snakes are capable of swimming and often confused with the native, venomous water moccasin or cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus).

Native banded water snake (Nerodia fasciata) Photo Source: srelherp.uga.edu
Native banded water snake (Nerodia fasciata)
Photo Source:
srelherp.uga.edu

The only caveat is that during the three-hour patrol, we barely covered 15-miles of the 1.5-million acres of Everglades National Park. There is an estimated 100,000 Burmese python out there and approximately 2,000 have been found and euthanized.

Native brown water snake (Nerodia taxispilota) Photo Source: srelherp.uga.edu
Native brown water snake (Nerodia taxispilota)
Photo Source: srelherp.uga.edu
Native water moccasin or cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) Photo Source: srelherp.uga.edu
Native water moccasin or cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)
Photo Source: srelherp.uga.edu

For more information about Burmese pythons at Everglades National Park, please visit:

http://www.nps.gov/ever/learn/nature/burmesepythonsintro.htm
http://www.nps.gov/ever/learn/nature/npspythonmanagement.htm

For more information about the Wilderness Waterway Trail, please visit:
http://www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/gulf-coast-trails.htm

For more information about Volunteering at Everglades National Park, please visit www.volunteer.gov and search for Everglades National Park.