If you go down to the Florida Everglades today, you're in for a big surprise: in the past 12 years, 90 per cent of the wild mammals which once roamed freely through the National Park have gone.
Snakes are to blame, say scientists. Big ones. Specifically: an exponentially-growing population of Giant Burmese Pythons, which can grow up to 16 feet long and have a huge appetite.
The creatures were first discovered in the park in 2000. They got there after being released into the wild by overwhelmed pet owners, and quickly established a breeding population.
No-one knows exactly how large their population has grown. But in the past 12 years, rangers have captured or killed a total of 1,825, without seeming to make a significant impact on their ability to reproduce, voraciously. Now scientists have started measuring their impact. And the results are sobering: in areas where the snakes are well established, foxes and rabbits have disappeared. Sightings of raccoons are down by 99.3 per cent, opossums by 98.9 per cent, and white-tailed deer by 94.1 per cent.
A paper published * the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, claims pythons are also harming bird and coyote populations and threaten already-rare rival predatory species, such as Florida panthers, with extinction.
"It's an ecological mess," Michael Dorcas, a scientist with the US Geological service told USA Today. He believes the animals will eventually spread throughout the southern US. Efforts to contain their spread are so far falling victim to partisan politicking: the US Fish and Wildlife service wants to ban the importation of large snakes to pet stores, but Republican lawmakers disagree, saying it represents job-killing "red tape".