A genetic study has found that some specimens of the invasive reptile that has decimated local wildlife are a mixture of two Asian species which could make it an even more formidable predator
From carnivorous giant lizards to toxic climbing tree frogs, the Florida Everglades have become a haven to invasive species steadily destroying and devouring the flora and fauna of the states famed River of Grass.
Now comes news of a hybrid super-predator slithering its way through the waterways of the 1.5m-acre wilderness: a genetically blended python that researchers believe might be able to better embrace the subtropical environment and expand its range more rapidly than any species before it.
The discovery was made during a study to improve knowledge of non-native species. US Geological Survey (USGS) scientists analysed 400 snakes captured in the Everglades over a 10-year period from 2001.
The researchers expected to find only the pure genetic makeup of the Burmese python, the deadly constrictor that has exploded in numbers to supplant the American alligator as the regions apex predator since a small number of unwanted pets were released in the 1980s.
Instead, they were surprised to uncover a tangled family tree, the genetic signature of the Indian rock python present in at least 13 snakes. That species is smaller, faster and arguably more aggressive than its big cousin, and thrives on higher and drier ground. Burmese pythons are more at home in the water.
When two species come together they each have a unique set of genetic traits and characteristics they use to increase their survival and their unique habitats and environments, said Margaret Hunter, a USGS research geneticist and the lead author of the report.
You bring these different traits together and sometimes the best of those traits will be selected in the offspring. That allows for the best of both worlds in the Everglades, it helps them to adapt to this new ecosystem potentially more rapidly.
Hunter stressed that the genetic markers found only in the snakes mytochondrial DNA passed down through the maternal line do not mean a new species of super-snake has suddenly been unleashed on the Everglades. The researchers believe cross-breeding occurred before the pythons secured their foothold in Florida.
The ones that have this signature would have to be female and breeding to pass it on to their offspring, she said.
Also unclear is the impact of so-called hybrid vigour on an individual snake.
Morphologically, lots of times if you have a hybrid between two good species, the hybrid shares the traits of both [but] how that translates to behaviour I dont know, said Steve Johnson, associate professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida.
It would depend on what genes, what molecular information is in a hybrid and how that information relates to their behavior.