John D. Willson, a former postdoc in the Hopkins Lab and current faculty member at the University of Arkansas, recently published a paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology titled, “Indirect effects of invasive Burmese pythons on ecosystems in southern Florida”.
Willson’s research paper was later highlighted in the online magazine, Anthropocene, published by Future Earth:
Invading pythons and the weird, uncertain future of the Florida Everglades
By Brandon Keim | February 8, 2017
The Florida Everglades are one of Earth’s biological marvels, a vast slow-moving river in whose marshes live—even at this late date, with water diverted, pollution injected and human development steadily destroying—a wondrous and singular array of creatures. Yet the Everglades are also undergoing a dramatic ecological upheaval. They’re home to a new and invasive apex predator: Burmese pythons.
Descended from escaped or abandoned pets, the pythons established a breeding population late in the 20th century. Their predatory habits are the stuff of viral legend (Google “python bursts after eating alligator”) and conservation concern, with researchers having documented dramatic mammal declines where pythons have proliferated. In those areas, once-common creatures like raccoons, opossums, and white-tailed deer are nearly extirpated.
So what next? That’s the big question and the subject of a new Journal of Applied Ecology study by biologist John Willson of the University of Arkansas. Curious about the future of a python-regulated ecosystem, Willson dug scores of artificial turtle nests across and outside the pythons’ range, then used motion-triggered cameras to monitor nest predation. (Rather than turtle eggs, Willson’s nests contained quail eggs.)
Where pythons prevailed, the nests were less-disturbed, as would be expected in the near-absence of egg-loving raccoons and opossums. This suggests a possibly turtle-rich future for the Everglades, and is also emblematic of the indirect, cascading consequences of the pythons’ rise.
“It is probable that pythons are having a strong positive indirect effect on turtle nesting success in southern Florida,” writes Willson, “and may also be having positive indirect effects on recruitment of other small egg-laying species in the Everglades such as ground-nesting songbirds, lizards, sea turtles, and oviparous snakes.” It’s not all good news for egg-layers, though. Willson notes that pythons have recently been documented eating the eggs of larger species, including guineafowl and crane-like birds called Limpkin.
As some populations expand and others contract, their ecological roles will also change. Given the importance of animals as seed-dispersers, for example, certain plant populations might also expand and contract; and that principle can be applied in the myriad contexts of each species’ life history. Altogether, writes Willson, changes might be expected in “vegetation composition or structure, nutrient dynamics, food web structure, or ecosystem services.” The very fabric of the Everglades could be rewoven.