Friday, 24 August 2018

Could a super snake emerge from Everglades pythons? New DNA study raises possibility

August 23, 2018 by Jenny Staletovich, Miami Herald

What started out as a straightforward genetic study of Florida's invasive python population has turned up a surprising plot twist: a small number of crossbred Burmese and Indian pythons with the potential to become a kind of Everglades super snake.

For the study, published this week in the journal Ecology and Evolution, U.S. Geological Survey researchers examined the tail tissue of 400 snakes captured in South Florida, from the Big Cypress Swamp to the Everglades. While the vast majority appeared to be closely related Burmese pythons—imagine a family reunion packed with first and second cousins—13 had genetic markers from Indian pythons, a subspecies that unlike the swamp-loving Burmese snake prefers high, dry ground.

The number is clearly small, but it raises the risk that over time some Everglades snakes could become better suited to a more varied landscape. Scientists call it hybrid vigor.

"If the Indian pythons have a wider range, perhaps these Everglades snakes now have that capability," said lead author and USGS geneticist Margaret Hunter. "It's quite interesting and quite surprising, but we don't know the extent it's in the population."

Because evolution seems to abhor certainty, there's also the possibility the opposite happens through another process, she said, euphemistically referred to as "outbreeding depression."

The study originally intended to look at the genetic makeup of South Florida snakes to better understand how they spread and how to help control them. Pythons started turning up in the 1980s, likely escapees from a South Dade breeding facility or released pets. By 2000, they were declared official residents in Everglades National Park and have since continued to expand north into the state's expansive water conservation areas and west into Big Cypress. In 2016, they were found breeding in the Keys for the first time.

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