Every child learns this sad and basic truth about nature: The snake eats the rabbit.
But in the southernmost Florida Everglades, things have taken a really wild turn. Pythons and anacondas are eating everything. The most common animals in Everglades National Park -- rabbits, raccoons, opossums and bobcats -- are almost gone, according to a study released yesterday.
The snakes are literally fighting with alligators to sit atop the swamp's food chain. In October, a 16-foot python was found resting after devouring a deer.
"There aren't many native mammals that pythons can't choke down," said Robert Reed of the U.S. Geological Survey and a co-author of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Invasive pythons and anacondas can't be stopped from marauding in the Everglades, Reed said; they can only hope to contain them. "We're trying to prevent spread to the Florida Keys and elsewhere north."
The snakes, released by pet owners, started to breed in the Everglades. A female python can lay 100 eggs, though 54 is considered the norm.
When researchers struck out to count animals along a main road that runs to the southernmost tip of the park, more than 99 percent of raccoons were gone, along with nearly the same percentage of opossums and about 88 percent of bobcats. Marsh and cottontail rabbits, as well as foxes, could not be found.
The Obama administration recently banned the import and interstate commerce of Burmese python, two species of African pythons and the yellow anaconda. But under pressure from the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, trade of the world's longest snake, the reticulated python, and the boa constrictor were allowed to continue.
About 11 million reptiles were kept as pets in 2005, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. More reptiles are imported here than anywhere else in the world.