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Pythons are eating the Everglades. Could eating them instead help fight climate change?

By Ashley Miznazi, Miami Herald
Published: April 14, 2024, 6:00am
2 Photos
A python hunter who removes invasive Burmese pythons shows a recent catch at a service plaza near Miami on April 23, 2021.
A python hunter who removes invasive Burmese pythons shows a recent catch at a service plaza near Miami on April 23, 2021. (Patrick Connolly/Orlando Sentinel/TNS) Photo Gallery

MIAMI — The voracious Burmese python has done widespread damage to the Everglades food chain, pretty much wiping out populations of small mammals like marsh bunnies and gulping down everything from birds to alligators.

But a new study out of Australia suggests a paradoxical prospect: Florida’s most destructive invasive species also could help protect the planet from the looming impacts of climate change — at least theoretically.

Underline that last word. Because there is a catch. Many catches, actually. For starters, we’d have to eat them, lots of them. The thousands that get pulled out of the Glades every year by hunters would not be nearly enough. We’d need to raise python as livestock and — clearly the No. 1 hurdle — learn to eat snake instead of beef or pork. Pythonburger, anyone?

There are several reasons, according to the study, that would make Burmese pythons a climate-friendly food option. Scientists found they are incredibly efficient at converting small amounts of food into large amounts of high-protein, low-fat weight gain. Also important, cattle burps, farts and poops are huge sources of methane, making up an estimated 45 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions of the U.S. agriculture industry. Pythons poop every few days to even weeks, and if they do pass gas, it’s much, much less.

So while snake farms supplanting cattle ranches across Florida may seem far-fetched, lead study author Daniel Natusch finds the prospect of commercial python production intriguing.

“Theoretically it can absolutely be scaled,” Natusch, the executive director of the research consulting firm, Epic Biodiversity, told the Miami Herald in a phone call from Cairns, Australia. “It would hugely reduce not just emissions but create resilience in our agricultural systems, and it would cost less to be producing these animals.”

In fact, the pythons in the study published in Scientific Report were actually farm-raised in Thailand and Vietnam, where the snake is a delicacy and part of the culinary culture. Natusch himself also has sampled python barbecued, slow-cooked, sauteed and as curry and jerky. He described it as a white meat with the texture of calamari with a taste he likens to chicken. Not unlike alligator, which is on more than a few Florida menus.

The study reflects a broadening search for more climate-friendly sustainable protein sources. There has been a great deal of research interest, for instance, in a variety of bugs, which are already commonly consumed in some countries. In comparison, Natusch believes snake meat would seem to have a better shot at catching on in the western world.

“It’s more palatable, unlike cricket or something. It’s more akin to what we’re used to. We’re not chewing through the legs of bugs,” he said. “The biggest barrier is getting people’s heads around it.”

The python protein advantage

As potential livestock, the study found pythons have some significant advantages over cattle, pigs, chicken and even bugs. One key difference: warm-blooded animals use 80-90% of the energy they get from food just to keep warm. Cold-blooded reptiles, on the other hand, maintain body temperature from outside forces, like basking in the sun or lolling on warm rocks. That allows them, Natusch said, to use much more of the energy they get from food to grow bigger and longer.

They also don’t need much space and don’t eat often — generally only once a week — and they can go months without drinking keeping hydrated by dew on their skin.

Unlike cattle, however, pythons don’t feed on sustainable growth like grass. They are carnivores that eat animals and eggs. But researchers used what would have otherwise gone into the garbage, like captured rodents, minced chicken heads and still-born pigs and made sausages from them. Pythons also have a strong digestive system that can break down even bones.

“Pretty much they’re long, thin garbage bags that are basically recycling a lot of waste,” Natusch said.

Scientists also are starting trials mixing in 50% plant soy to the sausages. The snakes, Natusch said, grew just as big and fast.

“They just don’t know. It’s like hiding broccoli in a big pie,” Natusch said.

State agencies don’t recommend snake

The findings of the study, unfortunately, don’t mean much for Florida’s efforts to control the pythons in the wild.

For one thing, while it’s legal to eat wild-caught python meat in Florida, that’s definitely not recommended by state officials.

Conventional livestock mostly eat grains and grass and meat products are routinely tested and inspected. That’s not the case with pythons caught in Florida marshes. Some Burmese pythons removed from the Everglades had mercury levels 100 times too high for human consumption. Many other creatures in the Everglades, including freshwater fish like largemouth bass, also have similar health warnings to limit consumption. But captured pythons, at the top of the food chain, are listed as unsafe to eat by both the Florida Department of Health and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

While some python hunters have eaten Florida snakes and restaurants have dabbled with exotic offerings like python pizza over the years, no commercial sale of snake meat is currently allowed. So anybody thinking of starting a commercial python farm or facility — they are sometimes raised in special warehouses in Asia — would face a lot of regulatory resistance. For instance, the state of Florida has already banned the importation of Burmese python, and a few other giant constrictors, and they are no longer allowed to be kept as pets or bred for commercial sale.

A special permit is required to even keep a live python, said McKayla Spencer, nonnative fish and wildlife program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The only reason they’re allowed to survive has to be for research purposes or for studies that could help eradicate the species.

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Natusch, however, believes its likely the “horse has bolted” in terms of Everglades invasion by the snakes so the threat of a commercial operations seems far less serious.

“Having a farm that might have one or two escapees wouldn’t be the end of the world, because the worlds already ended as far as snake issues,” he said.

It should be noted, however, that among the various theories of how the snakes spread in the first place is that some escaped from South Miami-Dade commercial pet breeders whose facilities were damaged during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. There doesn’t seem to concrete evidence to support that, according to researchers. The other probable cause are releases by owners whose pets grew too large to house or feed. The snakes easily reach 10 feet in a few years. Last July, a 19-footer weighing nearly 200 pounds, was caught in the Big Cypress National Preserve in Southwest Florida — the state record to date. So the idea of warehouses full of slithering snakes in a hurricane zone seems like the set-up for a very bad B-movie.

For the FWC, which contracts python hunters to find, report and kill these snakes for at least $50 a piece, anything that results in more snakes getting being pulled from marshes, swamps and forests is a good thing. “Every python removed from the Florida environment helps to protect native wildlife and habitats,” Spencer said.

But nobody thinks hunters could catch enough to produce a steady supply of food, even without the mercury concerns. Finding a a master of camouflage like the Burmese python in the Everglades sometimes can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. So far, after years of hunts, over 19,000 Burmese pythons have been found and reported to FWC. But scientists estimate there are tens of thousands or more still out there, still breeding.

Natusch points out that the native snakes could still help in creating python farms. Their eggs might produce the beginnings of a commercial operation that could be fed mercury-free meals.

The prospect of such places, of course, remains highly unlikely. While the science may make a good argument that it could help reduce emissions, snake meat would have to overcome squeamish consumers to keep a farm afloat. And some hunters who have tried it don’t exactly rave about it..

Amy Siewe, who lives in Tampa and calls herself the python huntress, has captured hundreds of pythons over the years — grabbing them by hand and humanely euthanizing them as part of the state effort to control their spread.

She called the texture of unappealing.

“The meat was very very chewy,” Siewe said, “so chewy I eventually had to spit it out.”

Slow cooking it, she said, turned it to slime. Maybe some enterprising chef will find the perfect recipe and cooking technique. But for now, she said, she will stick with turning their skin into merch like Apple watch bands.