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 animals

See Photos of Endangered Species from the 1960s

Meet Zata, Henry and Hilda, who took a star turn in LIFE as the magazine documented efforts to restore populations of oryxes, ocelots, orangutans, okapi and more

This week, the Oregon chub was removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Animals, becoming the first fish ever to shed its endangered status. When it was placed on the list in 1993, there were fewer than 1,000 of the minnow species left. Today there are more than 140,000.

In the years since the first official list of threatened and endangered species was published in 1967, 28 species have been recovered, 10 have become (or were discovered to already be) extinct, and more than 2,000 species have joined the original 78.

Though the notion of extinction entered public awareness at the turn of the 20th century and the federal government began taking steps to protect certain species then, it wasn’t until the 1960s that environmental activism pressured the government to be more proactive in identifying and taking measures to protect threatened species. The first significant piece of legislation, the Endangered Species Protection Act, was passed in 1966, followed by an amendment in 1969 and a reworking in the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

In the period leading up to these legislative acts, the zookeeper community was collaborating on strategies they could undertake toward preservation. An August 1964 article in LIFE reported on the creation of “special survival and propagation centers where pairs and herds of endangered species can propagate in peace and quiet.” The magazine sent photographer Nina Leen on an assignment to document these species in the new habitats being set aside for them.

Nineteen U.S. zoos formed the Wild Animal Propagation Trust, addressing issues that had prevented species in captivity from successfully mating in the past. Rhinos in the wild are undisturbed during mating season; their new protected habitats would ensure the same treatment. Baby orangutans abandoned by their mothers would be raised in special nursery facilities. If the Trust succeeded in regenerating species, they hoped to reintroduce some of the animals into their natural habitats.

LIFE also explored advances in the scientific understanding of mating rituals. A male and female gorilla at the Bronx Zoo, Oka and Mambo, had expressed a “mammoth indifference for one another,” refusing to mate. Researchers came to understand that male gorillas raised in captivity, having no exposure to mating in the wild, had not learned proper mating behavior. Polar bears, which in the wild are accustomed to privacy during birth, were killing their newborn cubs because of the throngs of spectators present at their births. Understanding the animals’ behavior in the wild helped zookeepers create environments more conducive to procreation.

All of the species photographed for the story remain threatened or endangered 50 years later. The attention and, ultimately, funding that certain species get can be linked to the public’s awareness of and appreciation for them—the whales, for example, are high on many people’s list of animals in need of saving. So if you want to step in and support the underdog, consider the clam, of which more than 100 species are endangered. “Save the Georgia Pigtoe Clam” has a nice ring to it.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

TIME animals

Australia’s Mammals on the Verge of ‘Extinction Calamity,’ Scientists Say

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Getty Images Koala

11 percent of the country's 273 native mammals have gone extinct since 1788

Australia has lost more than a tenth of its native mammals over the past 200 years in what scientists are calling an “extinction calamity,” according to a new study.

Since 1788, about 11% of the country’s 273 native mammals have gone extinct, BBC reports. A major factor has been the introduction of the predatory red fox and feral cat from Europe, according to scientists at two Australian public universities and the Department of Parks and Wildlife in Wanneroo, who conducted the study published in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Furthermore, 21% of the country’s mammals were found to be threatened. Large controlled fires used to manage land have also contributed to declining populations.

“No other country has had such a high rate and number of mammal extinctions over this period, and the number we report for Australia is substantially higher than previous estimates,” lead researcher John Woinarski said.

[BBC]

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 6

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. China is the key to solving the problem of North Korea.

By Christopher Hill in Project Syndicate

2. Squeezing cells to make their walls temporarily permeable could open the door to new cancer and HIV treatments.

By Kevin Bullis at MIT Technology Review

3. Survivors of domestic violence are getting immediate protection from their abusers via videoconference with a court officer from their hospital beds.

By Laura Starecheski at National Public Radio

4. Japan is testing underwater turbines to harness the power of ocean currents for clean energy.

By Brian Merchant in Motherboard from Vice

5. Drones are the new tool of choice for biologists and ecologists studying endangered species.

By Aviva Rutkin in New Scientist

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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 animals

Unique Australian Turtle Is Critically Endangered

The White-throated snapping turtle
Stephen Zozaya The white-throated snapping turtle

The turtle breathes out of its butt

A white-throated snapping turtle (Elseya albagula) native to Australia is critically endangered.

James Cook University researchers are raising awareness for the turtle’s plight. The turtle, which lives in the Queensland’s Connors River, has a unique breathing mechanism: it breathes out of its rear. It’s a breathing process called “cloacal respiration.”

The now critically endangered turtle does best in clear-flowing water, but construction projects like dams have restricted the turtles’ movement, and increased land use has caused sedimentation and erosion that harms the animal’s nesting spots.

“If the increased water infrastructure development and drought in northern Australia continues, they will continue to get hammered,” says James Cook University researcher Jason Schaffer who has been studying the turtle for the last eight years.

“These turtles breathe out of their ass, which is super awesome,” Schaffer told Scientific American.

Schaffer is calling for more nest and habitat protection.

TIME climate change

The Unexpected Animal Group Dying from Climate Change

tree-frog
Getty Images

It's affecting more than mammals

WSF logo small

The canary in the coal mine of climate change may actually be something a little less feathery and a lot more slimy: Amphibians. Many of these creatures have already been in decline due to disease, and climate changes appear to be accelerating the problem.

Jason Rohr, a University of South Florida biologist, says that some amphibians are already being forced to shift the timing of their breeding in response to climate change. Salamanders in the Appalachian mountains are shrinking. As climate trends continue, Rohr says we can expect to see amphibians further altering their behavior, moving to new grounds, and expect more overall declines in species.

WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL: What Will The Humans Do About Climate Change?

In the Western U.S., climate change is adding to the problems of amphibians already threatened by introduced predators. Starting in the late 1800s, wildlife officials have been stocking previously fish-free ponds and lakes across the western U.S with predatory trout. For a time, native frogs and salamanders were able to retreat to shallower ponds and waterways, but now a warming climate threatens to dry up these shelters—which are vital for both amphibian breeding and the survival of young tadpoles. To mitigate the damage, a group of researchers writing in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment recently recommended making use of hydrological models to evaluate the way climate change will affect amphibian habitats, and selectively removing fish from ponds.

“Amphibians in the West’s high-mountain areas find themselves in a vise, caught between climate-induced habitat loss and predation from introduced fish,” University of Washington researcher Maureen Ryan, a coauthor on the paper, said in a statement.

WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL: How Climate Change Is Already Dooming Some Mammals

The problem is even more dire in South America and Latin America. Frogs in the genus Atelopus have been decimated—71 out of about 113 species have gone extinct. Many of these extinctions are thought to be driven by interactions between climatic conditions and other factors, primarily the deadly chytrid fungus. Some scientists have argued that the the frogs’ tropical mountain habitats have been made more welcoming to the fungus by climate change, which has promoted the formation of clouds that lower daytime temperatures and raise nighttime temperatures, removing the extreme temperatures that may have previously kept the fungus in check.

“Disease is the bullet killing frogs, but climate change is pulling the trigger,” J. Alan Pounds, a scientist at Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, told National Geographic.

Not all scientists are convinced that the spread of chytrid fungus is hastened by climate change—one 2008 study in particular suggested there was little link between the two, and some researchers have argued that the periodic warming cycle known as El Nino is more to blame for high-profile frog extinctions, like that of the golden toad.

WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL: Your State Bird Could Be Extinct By 2080

But some of Rohr’s experiments looking directly at how frogs fight the fungus suggest that the temperature fluctuations linked to climate change shouldn’t be counted out just yet. In 2012, Rohr and colleagues found that the chytrid fungus thrives and kills more frogs in cooler environments—but that when frogs are suddenly switched from one temperature-controlled environment to the other, they fare even worse than frogs kept in a consistently hot or consistently cooler incubator. Frog extinctions are more complex than any one cause can explain.

As the climate changes in the future, the unique biology of amphibians may also make them less able to adapt to drier, hotter conditions than other groups of animals. “I think they are potentially at greater risk from desiccation than many organisms without permeable skin,” Rohr says. “Additionally, they are the most threatened vertebrate taxon on the planet, and thus they are already experiencing extremely high threats. Climate change could worsen this scenario.”

This article originally appeared on World Science Festival.

TIME Environment

Here Are 4 More Vulnerable Fish to Avoid Next Time You’re at the Sushi Bar

Blue-Fin Tuna Farm Operations At Kinki University Fisheries Laboratory As Seafood Proves Sweet Spot In Japanese Exports
Tomohiro Ohsumi—Bloomberg / Getty Images A farmed blue-fin tuna on board a boat at a fish farm operated by the laboratory in Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014.

Pacific bluefin tuna, Chinese pufferfish, American eels and Chinese cobras named by conservationists as risking extinction due to overfishing

A dwindling population of bluefin tuna is among the species of fish that could vanish from the Pacific ocean for good, conservationists warned on Tuesday, unless constraints are placed on commercial fisheries that target the highly sought after fish.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature added Pacific bluefin tuna to its “vulnerable” list of more than 22,000 species threatened with extinction, according to IUCN’s conservationists. The tuna was joined by American eels, Chinese pufferfish, and Chinese cobras.

“The Pacific Bluefin Tuna market value continues to rise,” said the organization’s tuna and billfish specialist Bruce Collette. Without curbing catches of juvenile fish, he added, “we cannot expect its status to improve in the short term.” The group estimates that the population has diminished by 19% — 33% over the past 22 years.

TIME Environment

Crimson on White: Hunting the Polar Bear

The images of a polar-bear hunt will be hard to view, but life in Canada's impoverished Inuit communities is just as hard

Ed Ou spent four months in 2013 photographing Inuit communities in Nunavut, the northernmost territory of Canada. Here, many are cut off from the rest of the country — and food and supplies are brought in at an extremely high cost by land and sea. Because of this, the Inuit often depend on hunting for food. Environmental groups regularly criticize them for hunting species claimed to have dwindling populations such as narwhal, belugas, seals and polar bears. In the U.S., Washington has pushed for a global ban on the commercial trade of polar-bear fur, meat and body parts. But the Canadian government opposes this on behalf of the Inuit.

Editor’s note: Given the isolation of the communities in the north of Canada, Ou helped offset the high costs of embedding himself with the Inuit community and contributed money for gas, groceries, heating, Internet and other expenses.


Ed Ou’s pictures are hard to look at. A polar bear emerges from the water, drenched in blood, turning its white fur crimson. Then the dead bear sprawled on the rocks, legs spread and jaw open, as if it were simply caught by surprise, even while the hunters begin the process of butchering the carcass. Finally the bear’s pelt, cleansed of blood, drying in a bathtub.

Polar bears have become the living symbols of climate change, with reason — as the planet warms, the sea ice that the bears use as hunting platforms is melting, putting the animals at risk. The idea of hunting and killing an animal that is listed as an endangered species, one that’s already under pressure from climate change, seems wrong on its face, like crimson blood on white fur.

But look closer at those pictures. Ou, a Canadian, traveled to the Inuit homeland of Nunavut in the far north not to document a polar-bear hunt, but to explore a part of his own country that had always seemed foreign. In remote towns like Pangnirtung and Iqaluit, Ou found a culture grappling with extreme poverty, substance abuse and a legacy of mistreatment from the Canadian government, which for decades all but stole Inuit children from their parents, sending them to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language or practice their own culture. The last residential schools were only shut down in 1996, but the effects are still being felt among the Canadian Inuit whom Ou went to document, compounded by the extreme isolation of the Arctic and the painful transition from a traditional subsistence-hunting culture to a sedentary way of life. “Trauma has been passed down from one generation to the next,” says Ou. “Alcoholism is high, drug abuse is high, suicide rates are high. It’s a very traumatized place.”

In his photos, Ou shows Inuit like Kelly Amaujaq Fraser, a young woman who was sexually abused as a young girl, and whose father killed himself when she was just a teenager. Ou shows a near-empty refrigerator, the product of a place where unemployment is in the double digits, and where a simple carton of milk can cost more than $10. Given those bleak conditions, it’s not surprising that the Inuit would hunt polar bears, as their ancestors did before them — albeit not with high-powered rifles. A single polar-bear pelt can fetch more than $10,000 on the open market, and the meat can feed dozens of hungry people. As distasteful as the sight of a butchered polar bear might be to outsiders, to the Inuit, it’s a matter of survival — and of culture. “They feel their ability to hunt is one of their last sources of subsistence,” says Ou. “Before you judge them, you have to understand the socioeconomic factors driving this.”

That doesn’t mean it’s right to allow polar-bear hunts to continue. It’s unclear just how many polar bears are left, and the continued effects of climate change will almost certainly drive the species closer to extinction if nothing is done to save them. But it doesn’t seem that the burden should fall on the Inuit, who’ve already paid such a high price. “They ask, ‘Why do we have to pay the highest price for global warming when we contribute the least?’” says Ou. Justice is something else that’s endangered in the Arctic.


Ed Ou is a photographer with Reportage by Getty Images

TIME Environment

Invasive Species: Not Always the Enemy

Endangered bird in invasive species
Image courtesy of Robert Clark The California Clapper Rail has come to depend on invasive Spartina cordgrass

The usual policy with invasive species is to eradicate them whenever possible. But in a changing world, that may not be possible

By some estimates, invasive species are the second-biggest threat to endangered animals and plants. Which is a problem, because invasions are on the rise, thanks to increasing global trade, climate change and habitat loss, all of which are turning the planet into a giant mixing bowl as invasive species spread across the globe. So it’s not surprising that many conservationists treat invasive species as enemy combatants in a biological war. The federal government spent $2.2 billion in 2012 trying to prevent, control and sometimes eradicate invasive species, in an effort that involved 13 different agencies and departments.

But un-mixing the global mixing bowl may be impossible—human activity has simply altered the planet too much. And as a new study in Science suggests, some invasive species have become so embedded in their environment that they could only be removed at great cost. Take them away and an ecosystem might collapse, in the same way that pulling a single thread can cause an entire tapestry to unravel.

Researchers from the University of California-Davis examined the relationship between the California Clapper Rail—an endangered bird found only in San Francisco Bay—and the invasive saltmarsh cordgrass hybrid Spartina. The Army Corps of Engineers originally introduced the grass Spartina alterniflora into San Francisco Bay in the mid-1970s in an effort to reclaim lost marshland. Unsurprisingly, though, the introduced species didn’t stay in its niche—it hybridized with native Spartina grass and began spreading, displacing the native Spartina and eventually invading more than 800 acres. That was a problem for the clapper rail, because the bird depended on the native Spartina as a habitat. So the Spartina casebecame a classic example of an invasive species causing trouble for an endangered native, which is why efforts began in 2005 to eradicate it. Those efforts were successful—more than 90% of the invasive Spartina has been removed, though the native plant has been slow to recover.

But something unexpected happened: Between 2005 and 2011, populations of the federally endangered clapper rail fell by nearly 50%. That’s likely because the bird came to depend on the invasive Spartina for habitat just as it had on the native. And since the population of the native grass wasn’t rebounding, the eradication of the invasive Spartina left the clapper rail that much more vulnerable. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to prohibit further eradication of the invasive Spartina, while transplanting nursery plants of the native Spartina.

As an invasive species, though, the hybrid Spartina was still marked for death—the question was how to complete eradication of the plant without accidentally eradicating an endangered species as well. The Science researchers modeled out possible interventions and found that the best solution was to slow down the eradication of the invasives until the native plants could recover and the ecosystem could return to something like its natural state. The default reaction to invasives is to stamp them out whenever possible, but the Science study demonstrated that the collateral damage would simply be too great.

“Just thinking form a single-species standpoint doesn’t work,” said Alan Hastings, a UC Davis environmental science and policy professor and a co-author of the paper, in a statement. “The whole management system needs to take longer, and you need to have much more flexibility in the timing of budgetary expenditures over a longer time frame.”

This isn’t the only example of a conflict between eradicating an invasive species and protecting an endangered one that has come to depend on it. In the Southwest, a program to eradicate invasive Tamarisk was eventually scaled back when it was discovered that the tree provided a nesting habitat for the endangered Southern Willow fly-catcher bird. And as the pace of invasions around the world gains speed—and efforts to fight those invasions scale up—we can expect those conflicts to intensify.

That’s one reason why a small but growing number of wildlife ecologists have begun to question the wisdom of fighting an open-ended war against invasive species. In 2011, 19 ecologists co-authored an influential article in Nature arguing that we should judge species not by their origin, but by their impact on the environment. That piece produced serious pushback by mainstream ecologists accustomed to the eradication paradigm, but in a planet that has been so fundamentally remade by human beings—the ultimate invasive species—it’s clear that an all-out war can’t go on. “The planet is changing,” Mark Davis, a biologist at Macalester College and the lead author on the Nature article, told me not long ago. “If conservation is going to be relevant, it has to accept that.”

TIME Environment

The World’s Most Endangered Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises

Slow and steady may win the race, but on World Turtle Day, these animals are struggling to survive

Is there anything more harmless than a turtle? (Unless, I suppose, you’re a nice, leafy vegetable.) Turtles and tortoises—the main difference is that turtles dwell at least partially in water, while tortoises live exclusively on land—are slow-moving, peaceful animals whose main form of protection from the outside world is a hard shell. Not for nothing do we have the fable of the slow and steady tortoise winning the race. Turtles have existed in some form for more than 220 million years, outlasting their early contemporaries the dinosaurs. Long-lived turtles and tortoises are symbols of perseverance in the natural world.

Unfortunately, the rules of the race are changing. Turtles and tortoises are among the world’s most endangered vertebrates, with about half their more than 300 species threatened with extinction. Only primates—human beings expected—are at greater risk of being wiped off the planet. The threats are many. The animals are collected by traders, eaten in the wild and in fine restaurants, used as pets or for traditional medicine, and sometimes simply killed. The very adaptations that once made them so successful—their long adult life span and delayed sexual maturity—has made them vulnerable as the world around them changed, mostly thanks to human beings. Climate change threatens them as well—a recent study found that as the water warms, more and more sea turtle hatchlings are being born male, which could eventually make it impossible for the species to reproduce successfully.

A 2011 report from the Turtle Conservation Coalition makes it clear: we need to act now if we’re to save the turtles and the tortoises:

We are facing a turtle survival crisis unprecedented in its severity and risk. Humans are the problem, and must therefore also be the solution. Without concerted conservation action, many of the world’s turtles and tortoises will become extinct within the next few decades. It is now up to us to prevent the loss of these remarkable, unique jewels of evolution.

As we mark World Turtle Day on May 23, spare a thought for these armored but endangered creatures.

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