(CNSNews.com) - The giant Burmese python, which can grow to more than 20 feet in length and weigh up to 250 pounds, has established a foothold in southern Florida and could spread to other warm-weather regions of the United States, posing "a health hazard for small people," scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey warned last week.
The pythons, which are native to Southeast Asia, were first discovered living in the wild in North America in the Florida Everglades in 2003.
All the wild pythons in the United States "descend, as far as we know, from pets that people released in Everglades National Park, USGS snake specialist Gordon Rodda told Federal News Radio last week.
"For whatever reason, people have a tendency to release unwanted pets in public lands," said Rodda, "especially federal lands such as Everglades National Park."
The pythons already have established themselves in other areas of southern Florida. "They are rapidly increasing in number and distribution," said Rodda. "They are spreading northward."
By creating a map of the U.S. that shows regions with climate conditions similar to the climate occupied by the python in Asia, the USGS has determined that climate alone would not limit the snake from spreading up the Eastern Seaboard as far as Delaware, and as far west as the Central Valley of California.
"So far as we know, the population of pythons is presently limited to Florida," said Rodda. "Right now, it appears to be almost exclusively south of Lake Okechobee. But the population also appears to be expanding very rapidly and spreading."
The worry is that the snake could pose a threat not only to animal species but also to the human species.
"They get very big," said Rodda. "And that is really the crux of the problem in keeping them as pets. When they get above a certain size, most people have trouble supplying them with adequate facilities. They get big enough to eat things. In Florida, we have already recorded them eating deer."
Pythons are constrictors. They kill their prey by coiling around it and suffocating it.
"We are very concerned right now about some of the mammals in South Florida and some of the birds that may be extirpated or even made extinct by this new predator. In addition, it is going to be a burden on people that have domestic animals of a suitable size, so we're thinking ducks, geese, chickens, turkeys as well as smaller mammals, dogs, cats, sheep," said Rodda. "And, of course, an animal that big potentially constitutes a health hazard for small people."
Bob Reed, a USGS biologist who worked to develop the maps showing the python's potential range in the United States, echoed Rodda's concern that the snake poses a threat not only to animals but also to people.
"Wildlife managers are concerned that these snakes, which can grow to over 20 feet long and more than 250 pounds, pose a danger to state- and federally listed threatened and endangered species as well as to humans," Reed said in a statement released by U.S.G.S.
"There's a whole variety of things that could be undesirable that might happen as a result of releasing these pets," said Rodda.
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