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PYTHONS' RANGE? IT MAY BE TOO FAR

The invasive predator could survive far from the Everglades, where it flourishes.

The Everglades apparently isn't big enough for the giant invaders, who have grown fat, happy and increasingly numerous on a diet of unsuspecting natives. Over the past year, pythons have been found from Key Largo to Glades County, and a new study suggests the exotic predators could spread beyond South Florida.

Far beyond.

The Burmese, or Indian, python - at least theoretically - would feel right at home from California to Delaware in a array of habitats from scrub deserts to mountain forests, according to a study by federal scientists.

The study, to be published in the journal Biological Invasions, doesn't point to places pythons definitely will spread, but presents maps showing where the climate could allow migrating or illegally released pythons to survive.

The suitable habitat, which stretches from coast to coast, underlines an all-terrain capability that scientists say has allowed one of the world's largest snakes to thrive in the Everglades.

Pythons, which can top 20 feet in length, potentially could upset the natural balance of the Everglades - a concern memorably illustrated in 2005 by famous photos of a 13-foot python that exploded after attempting to swallow a 6-foot alligator.

In 2002, when python numbers started climbing in the park, the conventional wisdom was that nature would control them, said Skip Snow, a biologist with Everglades National Park - fire ants would eat their eggs, gators would eat them or maybe a freeze would kill them.

Now, the population appears to be booming. Captures in the park hit nearly 250 in 2007, Snow said, which represent only a fraction of the population.

Last year, pythons showed evidence of pushing beyond the Everglades, with more than a half-dozen captures in Key Largo. In its native Southeast Asia, the snake is found in 11 countries, from Bangladesh to Vietnam, and survives not just in swamps but forests, scrub deserts and the Himalayan foothills. Hibernation allows the snakes to survive extended chills.

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