What's more, a necropsy on the euthanized python revealed she was carrying 87 eggs—also a state record for the species, a University of Florida team announced Monday.
The Everglades is home to a growing population of the invasive Asian pythons, many of which originate from snakes that either escaped into or were dumped into the wild in the 1990s. (See Everglades pictures.)
Sometimes adopted as a pet, the Burmese python is one of nine species of constrictor snakes—and about a million individual constrictors—that have been imported into the United States over the past 30 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Burmese Python Finding Florida "Ideal"
Florida's previous biggest-snake record-holder was a 16.8-foot-long (5.12-meter-long) Burmese python. Finding a bigger one "is a great indication that conditions in Florida are really perfect for them," said J.D. Willson, a biologist and snake expert at the University of Arkansas.
Burmese pythons, he said, grow biggest where there's plentiful food—in captivity, they can reach lengths of over 20 feet (6 meters).
A Burmese python as big as the new titleholder "should be able to eat nearly any native animal in South Florida"—even Florida panthers, Willson said. And in fact, a recent study showed that Burmese pythons are preying on a wide range of native species, many of which have declined since pythons took hold in the region.
Another reason bigger is better: Large snakes retain heat more easily. That may explain how heftier pythons—though adapted to steamy environments—manage to survive the occasional winter freeze in Florida, he added.
The number of eggs the recently caught female was carrying is another sign that the snake was a healthy animal, and that Florida's "environmental conditions are ideal" for Burmese pythons, said Whit Gibbons, a professor emeritus of ecology and head of outreach for the Savannah River Ecology Lab at the University of Georgia.
Stopping the Burmese Python's Spread
To biologist Cheryl Millett, those 87 eggs are "just more evidence that they are pretty much established—they're breeding in the Everglades," she said.
That's why Millett's group, a public-private Nature Conservancy partnership called Python Patrol, focuses not on eradicating invasive pythons but on stopping the spread of the snake to sensitive areas, such as bird breeding spots, the Florida Keys, or residential neighborhoods.
"I don't think we can necessarily get rid of every last one. We just want to keep them from moving elsewhere," Millett said.
Recent federal and state laws have also attempted to limit the trade and ownership of invasive snakes.
In the end, though, Savannah River's Gibbons said, it may be Mother Nature who puts the Burmese python on notice.
"You can never know what might befall a species," Gibbons said. "There could be a disease outbreak, or the prey base could diminish sufficiently."
But, he said, "I think pythons are going to be part of the native fauna in the next few decades."