WEST PALM BEACH — One week after a pet python strangled a 2-year-old girl in Sumter County, Sen. Bill Nelson unfurled a 16-foot python skin at a congressional hearing and warned, "It's just a matter of time before one of these things gets to a visitor in the Florida Everglades."
The next week, he called for forming a python posse to kill the beasts, citing the "estimated 100,000 or more pythons now roaming the 'Glades." So began the Great Florida Python Hunt, with a special media kickoff in the Everglades during which, miraculously, hunters captured one of the elusive snakes.
Afterward Nelson told the Associated Press: "One down, 99,999 to go." And this week, NBC reporter Kerry Sanders announced on the Today show that "it's estimated there are more than 150,000 wild Burmese pythons on the loose."
Well, not exactly.
The idea that scientists estimate the number of pythons living in the Everglades at 100,000 — or 150,000 — is one of several questionable claims.
Others include that pythons, if ignored, will dominate the Everglades food chain and eventually spread across the Southern third of the United States.
In fact, the number of pythons in the Everglades is probably closer to around 30,000, park biologists say.
What's more, pythons face numerous predators in the Everglades, raising the possibility that the population growth could plateau well before significant numbers of the snakes find their way into our back yards. And new research has cast doubt on an oft-cited government study that says pythons could spread well beyond South Florida.
Nobody disputes that pythons pose a threat to the ecosystem.
What is debatable is how much damage they could do.
Estimates of 150,000 pythons in the Everglades are loosely based on "guesstimates" by Skip Snow, an Everglades National Park wildlife biologist, of how many could live in the Everglades. In fact, Snow offers a wide range: 5,000 to 138,000.
Snow estimates the true number at around 30,000.
Experts cite the exponential rise in the number of pythons caught as evidence of population growth. But those statistics may be skewed by intensified efforts to locate the stealthy reptiles, concedes Bill Hallac, the park's chief of biological resources.
From 1979 through 2001, park biologists never saw more than three snakes captured in any given year. Since then, captures have jumped from 14 in 2002 to 343 last year — for a cumulative total of 1,074 as of early July.