Python Week: Could these 7 deadly exotics get a foothold in Florida

If it was just Burmese pythons, that would be bad enough.

But Florida is crawling with invasive animals: Sambar deer on St. Vincent Island, rhesus macaques in Ocala, Nile monitors in Cape Coral, Vervet monkeys near Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and thousands of monk parakeets throughout the state.

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They get here in a variety of ways: Smugglers. Owners who release their exotic pets when they get too big. Sometimes the animals just escape, or a violent storm gives them a jailbreak of sorts. Some people release them on purpose to establish a wild population.

Most invasive species, though a nuisance, aren’t likely to kill you. The problem is that just about anything that gets loose in Florida lives. So if what gets loose is dangerous, we have a big problem.

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There’s always a risk that other dangerous species besides the Burmese python could get a foothold in Florida. If Burmese pythons from the other side of the world can become established here, why not the larger green anaconda, which comes from South America? Crocodiles? Venomous snakes?

Here’s a list of some dangerous creatures that could end up in Florida swamps, forests, canals or ponds, maybe even your backyard.  Warning: Some may already be here, even if not fully established.

Nile Crocodile. Kruger National Park. South Africa.

Nile crocodile

You've seen the frightening videos: a zebra or antelope tries to get a drink on an African riverbank when a Nile crocodile suddenly lunges out of the water, grabs them, spins them around and holds them underwater.

They are born hunters.

At least four Nile crocodiles have already been captured in Florida. A 2016 scientific report confirmed that Nile crocodiles had been found living wild in south Florida and that they could become established in the state.

In 1996 or 1997, a young crocodile escaped from its enclosure at Billie Swamp Safari in Hendry County. When it was recaptured in 2000 it measured 9 feet. In April 2009, Robert Freer captured a second Nile crocodile from a porch of a home in Miami.

A third, 4-foot crocodile was captured in October 2011 in Homestead. The fourth crocodile found in the wild was about 2 feet long when originally captured in March 2012 in a canal in Homestead. When the crocodile was recaptured in March 2014 in Everglades National Park it had grown to 5½ feet long.

Crocodylus niloticus has several differences from American crocodiles. First, they can grow a bit larger. Male Nile crocodiles usually top out at 16.5 feet, about the same length as the largest American crocodiles, but some Nile crocodiles can grow to 20 feet long. Also, they live mainly in freshwater habitats, while American crocodiles generally prefer saltwater and live along the coast.

But what makes Nile crocodiles more of a threat is that they are more aggressive than American crocodiles, said Jim Beever, a Southwest Florida biologist and natural resources expert.

"American crocodiles are sweet by comparison," Beever said "I don’t feel threatened by them." He said he's been in the water with them and they are much more interested in catching fish.

The Nile crocodile thinks everything is prey to them, he said.

"Alligators grab dogs walking by the water with their owners," he said. "A Nile crocodile would take the dog and the owner."

Saltwater crocodile

The saltwater crocodile is the largest living reptile and, like the Nile crocodile, a killer of humans. It has the strongest bite of any animal on the planet.

It gets its name from its ability to tolerate salty water, but generally prefers coastal areas with brackish water. That often puts it in rivers and estuaries.

The natural range of Crocodylus porosus is enormous, stretching from India to Australia and many places between. And despite being called salties, they can tolerate brackish and freshwater.

If you find yourself in the water with a large saltie, it's a good bet you're considered prey.

In late April a 65-year-old man who was fishing at Kennedy Bend in northern Australia disappeared. His remains were soon found in two captured crocodiles, one 13.5 feet long, the other a 9-footer.

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The black caiman is the largest of the caiman species of crocodile and reaches sizes up to 17 feet long.

Black caiman

Black caimans (Melanosuchus niger) are the largest member of the family Alligatoridae (alligators and caimans) and live in South America. They can reach 19.5 feet long and sometimes attack humans, but not with the frequency of Nile and saltwater crocodiles.

Think they can't get established here? It's cousin, the spectacled caiman is already established here, due to escapes or releases, most likely due to the pet trade, says the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The spectacled caiman can reach 8 feet long but is generally only 6 feet long in Florida. It has been established with a breeding population in Broward and Dade counties for at least 10 years. That could be longer because they were first observed in Florida in the 1960s.

Like the Nile crocodile, three additional crocodilians have been reported in Florida but haven't established a breeding population yet.

Beever, the biologist, says invasive crocodilians would not necessarily have it easy while they are small. "Something that’s similar to a creature we have here will still be preyed on," Beever said. For example, he said, great blue herons are used to eating baby alligators. They would just as easily eat a baby Nile crocodile.

Reticulated python

The reticulated python, Malayopython reticulatus, is the longest snake in the world, reaching lengths of 23 feet or more.

It has been reported in at least eight different areas of the state ranging from near Largo in Pinellas County to Dade County ‒ and in Broward and Dade counties it's been found in at least two different locations. In 2011 one was spotted off US 41 in Big Cypress National Preserve.

Reticulated pythons are native to Southeast Asia and can range from India to China and down to Indonesia. They are one of the few snake species known to prey on people.

Shealy's Skunk Ape Headquarters and Trail Lakes Campground in Ochopee have regulated snake exhibits that include Goldie, a reticulated python that is at least 20 feet long. "Goldie is pretty tame, she has a good disposition but we keep her well fed so that's a big part of that," Jack Shealy said.

Shealy said reticulated pythons could get established if they are released in big enough numbers. He said a big part of the problem is pet owners who don't follow regulations.

"Over the years, South Florida has been a thriving ground for exotic species because of irresponsible pet owners, that's really what it comes down to," he said. "People take fish, they take lizards, they get things that they think they want to have and then they just don't exhibit the responsibility and they get dumped off."

Olive, a 15.2 foot green anaconda, is the longest snake that has ever lived at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

Green anaconda

Green anacondas, the world's heaviest snakes at more than 300 pounds, have have also been sighted in Florida, usually around central Florida. They have been reported as far north as Gainesville and as far south as Miami near Everglades City.

Click this link to see where the species has been reported in Florida.

For example, one was found sunning itself outside a house's shed just north of Melbourne in 2016. It was 8.5 feet long.

In 2010, Osceola County deputies captured a 12-foot green anaconda at East Lake Fish Camp in northern Osceola. In 2004, a juvenile male was found in Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve.

Eunectes murinus is an apex predator from South America capable of taking large prey in the same way Burmese pythons do. The FWC says seven green anacondas have been removed from Florida by the agency or its partners as of October 2020. It also says the state's climate is highly suitable for the species to get a foothold, although it is not yet established here.

Besides the Burmese python, two other constrictors already have become established in Florida: the red-tailed boa and the Northern African python.

A Black Mamba slithers along in the deserts' new Size, Speed, and Venom: Extreme Snakes exhibit at the Indianapolis Zoo, Thursday, June 13, 2019.

Black mamba

The black mamba is the second longest venomous snake in the world, and its venom can kill humans in three to 16 hours if they are not treated with antivenom.

Could they get established here?

In January, FWC's Division of Law Enforcement (DLE) filed charges against eight people in connection with illegal trafficking of venomous and prohibited snakes.

Over the course of the investigation, nearly 200 snakes, representing 24 species, were bought or sold by FWC undercover investigators. Some of those species include the inland taipan, bushmaster, rhinoceros viper, African bush viper, Gaboon viper, green mamba, eyelash viper, multiple species of spitting cobra, forest cobra, puff adder and saw-scaled vipers.

The people involved showed a complete disregard for the regulatory framework designed to keep Floridians safe, the agency said.

“Some of these snakes are among the most dangerous in the world,” said Maj. Randy Bowlin, FWC DLE Investigations and Intelligence Section Leader, in a news release at the time.

Task force members noted that the particular antivenom needed might not be in place if there's no reason to expect that species of snake to be nearby.

With mambas, though, you have to consider competitors, Beever said. "The python thrived because there was nothing like it here."

King cobra

In 2017, a Monterery Park, California man was arrested on charges of smuggling three young king cobra snakes from Hong Kong in potato chip cannisters.

The King cobra, Ophiophagus hanna, is the largest venomous snake in the world. It can grow to 18 feet long, though it's usually about 8 to 10 feet. Its venom is a potent neurotoxin and can lead to death quickly if the victim doesn't receive antivenom.

It has been reported in the state back in the early 2000s, but has not become established.

In 2015, an Orlando-area man lost his king cobra. It wasn't the first time he'd lost a venomous snake. It was recovered in his neighbor's garage after being missing five weeks.

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: 7 deadly exotic species that could get a foothold in Florida