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The Everglades' Mammals Are Disappearing, and We Can Definitely Blame the Pythons

Mar 22, 2015 03:31 PM EDT
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Researchers have long had anecdotal evidence that the mammal population in the Florida Everglades - a region famous for its wild and rich biodiversity - was on the decline. That's right, 'mammals' - as in all that's cute, furry, savage, and sly - ranging from skunks, to bats, to even bobcats. Now a new study has found the first concrete example of this decline, with invasive pythons named as the primary killers of the region's disappearing marsh rabbits.

If you know anything about rabbits, you know that it's kind of hard to get rid of them. Constantly reproducing and expanding their territory, most rabbits are professional prey - when local predators kill their neighbors, they just make more! And in the expansive Everglades, where humanity's harmful influences are few and far between, the marsh rabbit thrived.

That is, until the Burmese python showed up.

Not too long ago, a team of researchers from various respected institutions around Florida pooled their efforts and released about 80 tagged marsh rabbits into two different parts of the Everglades National Park. One part was known to be home to a dense population of the pythons - an invasive species that, without any natural predators, has reached numbers that ecologists say are "uncontainable," regardless of how much state money is dedicated towards eradicating them. The other part has remained largely un-invaded even as the snakes continue their slithering march across the 1.5 million-acre wilderness.

The results were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

By retrieving the carcasses of dead rabbits over a nine-month period, the researchers were able to determine what killed them. As expected, in the non-python region, local predators such as foxes and even cats proved to be the primary killers. However, in the python region a stunning two thirds of the rabbits killed were killed by pythons. That rate alone, researchers note, is unsustainable, and would lead to slow population declines for the rabbits. However, once they accounted for the fact that native predators are also still on the hunt for these animals too, the researchers were able to conclude that the once-prevalent rabbits could face a local extinction in the Everglades.

And of course, that would spell disaster for other mammals in the park as well, as the rabbits hold a serious position in the region's food chain.

Unfortunately, there's not much that can be done to stop this. Wildlife ecologist Frank Mazzotti told local media in the past that currently biologists only have a one percent detection rate for the elusive Burmese in the marshlands. That rate, he suggests, needs to be at least 50 times greater for eradication efforts to make an impact.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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