A native bobcat swipes at a 120-pound Burmese python in the Florida Everglades.Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey
Invasive Burmese pythons have spread across the Florida Everglades, destroying much of the native ecosystem and prompting humans to intervene and attempt to stop their takeover. But a recent discovery suggests that the Everglades might be able to fight its own battles.
In a study published in Ecology and Evolution, researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) stationed at Big Cypress National Preserve in the Everglades captured images of a native male bobcat stumbling upon a python nest and striking at the 120-pound mama snake. Though the python successfully defended her nest, that didn't stop the bobcat, who later returned when the nest was unguarded and feasted on the eggs.
The discovery marks the first time a native predator was scientifically documented fighting a nesting python in the Everglades.
"We've heard of bobcats and pythons meeting, but nothing like this," Andrea Currylow, a research ecologist with USGS and lead researcher on the study, tells New Times. "We haven't seen this kind of resilience in the Everglades ecosystem against invasive apex predators."
Pythons are native to Southeast Asia but were introduced to the local ecosystem via the exotic pet trade in the '90s when pet owners released them into the Everglades, where they encountered no natural predators. The snakes have wreaked havoc on the native wildlife ever since, decimating populations of raccoons, possums, marsh rabbits, and other mammals.
Owing to their own habits and human efforts to eradicate them from the swamp, scientists have limited knowledge of how pythons behave, live, and grow in the Everglades.
"Because we want to remove these animals from the ecosystem, we have few longer-term studies that can answer some of these basic questions — like how many eggs do [pythons] lay in the wild, how many of those eggs survive, what is their survival rate across stages of life," Currylow explains.
Last June, the team of scientists set up cameras at Big Cypress National Preserve to observe a female Burmese python and her nest and gather data on the predator's life cycle. It was only after they recovered the motion-activated still images that they learned of the bobcat-vs.-python encounter.
The bobcat stumbles upon the unguarded python nest.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey
According to the study, the male bobcat was first spotted on camera observing the unguarded python nest, and then "consuming, trampling, caching, and uncovering the eggs." Scientists determined that, based on the patterning of its fur, the same cat returned later that evening when the brooding python was at her nest but didn't get too close or interact with her. The next night, the bobcat returned when the python was there. This time, the python and bobcat were captured "facing each other."
Their duel took place the following day, when cameras captured images of "the python's head at striking distance from the rest of her coils near the bobcat's feet," followed by "the bobcat...swiping at the python from the left side of the frame, then moving to the right [side of the frame] as the python visually tracks the bobcat." From there, the bobcat "advances and again swipes at the python but no physical contact is apparent."
When the researchers arrived at the nest later that day, they found it had been ravaged. Though their planned data-gathering efforts were now for naught, evidence of a native predator fighting a python and destroying its nest was a scientific breakthrough of its own in terms of the reptilian interloper's life cycle.
"We weren't looking for this at all!" Currylow exclaims. "We found this awesome documentation of antagonistic interactions between two top predators."
When researchers later arrived at the nest, they found it had already been ransacked.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey
The research is still preliminary, and scientists will need to observe more interactions between pythons and native predators in the wild to make sure this furious "face-off" — to borrow from the title researchers gave their study — wasn't an aberration.
"We’re hoping to see if more natives are able to recognize pythons as a food item instead of it only being one-way predation," Currylow says. "If that's what's happening, that is so crazy! The capacity of this ecosystem to rebound is really exciting."
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