TIME Environment

Burmese Pythons Are Taking Over the Everglades

Biologists Track Northern African Pythons In Florida's Everglades
Joe Raedle—Getty Images Edward Mercer, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission non-native Wildlife Technician, holds a Burmese Python during a press conference in the Florida Everglades about the non-native species on January 29, 2015 in Miami.

Burmese pythons aren't your normal predators

True to their name, Burmese pythons are native to the tropics of southern and southeastern Asia, where the gigantic snakes—they can grow as long as 19 ft.—have carved out a comfortable niche for themselves, squeezing their prey to death. But sometime over the past few decades, Burmese pythons began appearing in Everglades National Park in south Florida. The snakes were most likely either pets that had been released into the wild or their descendants, and, like countless tourists before them, they took very well to the tropical heat and lush greenery of Florida.

Too well, as it turns out. A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B confirms what scientists have feared: predation from the Burmese pythons is already changing the delicate balance of the national park’s food chain. Scientists from the University of Florida, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released 26 marsh rabbits fitted with tracking devices into the park. The aim was to find out what effect the pythons would have on the rabbits, which are native to the Everglades but have all but vanished over the past decade—the same period of time when sightings of Burmese pythons became more frequent.

In the fall and winter, the marsh rabbits thrived, reproducing rapidly. But when the weather began to warm—which would have made the temperature-sensitive pythons more active—the marsh rabbits began to disappear. Where? Into the bellies of the Burmese pythons. The snakes hunted the rabbits ruthlessly—the researchers found that 77% of the tracked rabbits were eaten by Burmese pythons, a fact scientists knew because the trackers led them to the digested bodies of the rabbits inside the stomachs of the snakes. (At a control area outside the park, by contrast, no rabbits were killed by pythons, and most that died were eaten by native mammals like bobcats.) So voracious were the Burmese pythons that they essentially hunted the marsh rabbits to the point of extinction.

And that’s what worries scientists so much. Earlier research had linked a drastic decrease in the population of small mammals to the presence of the Burmese pythons, but those findings had been indirect—other factors, like environmental change, could have been behind the decline. The new study makes it much clearer that Burmese pythons are indeed changing the ecological balance of the Everglades for the worst—and perhaps singlehandedly.

That’s incredibly unusual—when it comes to invasive species, only human beings have managed to do so much damage on a continental mammal community. (There are frequent examples of invasive species, including snakes, eliminating species on small islands, but not in a large territory like the Everglades.) As study co-author Bob Reed of the U.S. Geological Society told CBS News:

All of us were shocked by the results. Rabbit populations are supposed to be regulated by factors other than predation, like drought, disease. They are so fecund. They are supposed to be hugely resilient to predation. You don’t expect a population to be wiped out by predation.

But Burmese pythons aren’t your normal predators, as I discovered for myself when I visited the Everglades for a cover story on invasive species. They can disappear at will, go months without eating and they’re afraid of absolutely nothing. The only way to save the Everglades may be to find and remove the snakes—but as this video above shows, that’s far from easy.

MORE: Invasive Species, Coming Soon to a Habitat Near You

TIME nation

The American Century Isn’t Over

I'm the Foreign Editor at TIME, handing international news in the magazine and online. Previously I covered energy and environmental issues for TIME, and was the Tokyo bureau chief in 2006 and 2007.

China won't end U.S. dominance—but political gridlock and isolationism could

As Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye takes a seat, he glances at the portrait that looms over the conference room. “There he is,” says Nye.

“He” is Henry Luce, the founder of TIME and LIFE magazines. (Hence the portrait–we’re at TIME’s offices.) In a 1941 editorial in LIFE, Luce urged the U.S. to enter World War II to defend democratic values and “create the first great American century.”

That term became shorthand for the period of U.S. geopolitical dominance that began around the end of the war. But from the moment the American century was born, Americans have fretted over threats to the country’s pre-eminence. In the 1950s the Soviet Union seemed poised to bury the U.S.; in the 1980s the Japanese were going to outwork lazy Americans.

Today a rising China is the great rival. A 2013 Pew poll of 39 countries found that most people believed China already was or would eventually become the world’s leading superpower–and that included nearly half of Americans.

To which Nye says: Not so fast. A pioneer in the theory of soft power and the dean of American political scientists, Nye knows geopolitics. In his new book, Is the American Century Over?, Nye makes a strong case that American geopolitical superiority, far from being eclipsed, is still firmly in place and set to endure. And the biggest threat isn’t China or India or Russia–it’s America itself.

It’s easy to forget what a global behemoth the U.S. remains today. Take military power: the U.S. not only spends four times more on defense than the No. 2 country, China, but it also spends more than the next eight countries combined. The U.S. Navy controls the seas, and the country’s military has troops on every inhabited continent. America’s armed forces have become more dominant since the dawn of Luce’s American century–not less. For nearly 50 years after World War II, U.S. power was checked by the Soviet Union. No longer.

The relative decline of American economic clout might seem obvious. By one measurement, China has already passed the U.S. to become the world’s largest economy. But that’s in part a trick of perspective. In 1945, thanks largely to the devastation of World War II, the U.S. produced nearly half the world’s GDP. By 1970 that share had fallen to about one-quarter, but as Nye points out, that was less a matter of American decline than a global return to normality. Nearly half of the top 500 international companies are owned by U.S. citizens, and 19 of the top 25 global brands are American.

But the most important reason the U.S. will continue to dominate is the lack of a viable rival. Nye dismisses each in turn: the European Union is too fractured, Japan is too old, Russia is too corrupt, India is too poor, Brazil is too unproductive.

As for China, Nye expects that as the country keeps growing, it will take up more space on the international stage. But Beijing faces major internal challenges that could derail its rise: a polluted environment, an aging population and inefficient state-owned industries. More important, China conspicuously lacks the ingredient that has made the U.S. unique–an openness toward immigrants. “As Lee Kuan Yew once told me,” Nye says, referring to the founding father of modern Singapore, “‘China can draw on a talent pool of 1.3 billion people, but the U.S. can draw on the world’s 7 billion.'”

It’s the potential loss of that openness that worries Nye. Should the U.S. decide to shut its borders or turn its back on international affairs–two recurring impulses in U.S. history–all bets are off. If political gridlock becomes permanent or income inequality keeps rising, that too could threaten American supremacy. “The question is whether we’ll keep living up to our potential,” says Nye.

He bets yes–and believes that on the whole, that’s a good thing for the world. A strong U.S. has helped keep tensions in check in East Asia and has worked to integrate a rising China into the existing international system. In July a NASA probe will visit Pluto for the first time ever, and our exploration of the solar system–led from start to finish by the U.S.–will be complete.

America is far from faultless: the invasion of Iraq and intransigence on climate change stand out as two major mistakes. But it’s difficult to imagine that the world would be a better place if Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China were running things. “I believe this is a different country,” says Nye. Henry Luce couldn’t have said it better.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME

The Most Powerful Protest Photos of 2014

There wasn't a corner of the planet untouched by protest this year, from the tear-gassed streets of Ferguson to the student camps of Hong Kong

In 2011, TIME named the Protester as the Person of the Year, in recognition of the twin people-power earthquakes of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. TIME named the Ebola Fighters as the 2014 Person of the Year, but you could have forgiven if we went back to the Protester. There wasn’t a corner of the planet untouched by protest this year, from the tear-gassed streets of Ferguson, Missouri, to the squares of Mexico City, to the impromptu student camps of Hong Kong. Many of the protests were remarkably peaceful, like Occupy Hong Kong, which was galvanized by public anger over the overreaction of the city’s police. Others turned bloody, like the Euromaidan protests in Kiev, Ukraine, which eventually brought down the government of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, in turn triggering a war that led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in May and the deaths of thousands of Ukrainians.

Not every protest was as effective as those that began the year in the cold of Kiev. Hong Kongers still don’t have full democratic rights, gay rights are on the retreat in much of east Africa and every day seems to bring news of another questionable police killing in the U.S. But the wave of social action that ended 2014 is unlikely to crest in 2015. The ubiquity of camera phones means no shortage of iconic photographs and videos from any protest, whether in Lima or Los Angeles, and social media gives everyone the means to broadcast. What follows are some of the most powerful images from the global streets in 2014.

TIME natural disaster

See the Worst Natural Disasters of 2014

When it comes to acts of God, 2014 wasn’t a particularly active year. No powerful hurricane struck the U.S. like Sandy in 2012 or Katrina in 2005. There was no singlecatastrophic event like the Asian tsunami of 2004, which killed nearly 300,000 people, the Haiti earthquake of 2010, which killed over 200,000, or even the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in 2010, which disrupted air travel for weeks.

But while there wasn’t a single iconic catastrophe, Mother Earth was still plenty busy in 2014. A volcano in Hawaii, a typhoon in the Philippines, wildfires in California and seven feet of snow in Buffalo—this year has witnessed its share of extreme weather and other natural disasters. The photos that follow are a reminder that when the Earth moves or the heavens strike, the results can be gorgeous to see—provided you’re not caught in the middle.

MORE: The most beautiful wildfire photos you’ll ever see

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