The voracious appetite of the invasive Burmese python is causing Florida’s mammal and bird populations to plummet. With little natural competition to control the numbers of large snakes, the situation looks hopeless. But new observations suggest the bobcat, a wildcat native to Florida, may be able to help.
A team of conservationists recently collected evidence of a bobcat devouring python eggs at Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve, and last month published their findings in the journal Ecology and Evolution. Whether this individual cat was more adventurous than the average bobcat is hard to say, but it does suggest a potential way to limit the python’s proliferation – by other animals eating their unhatched young.
The event was captured by a motion-sensitive camera that a team led by US Geological Survey ecologist Andrea Currylow deployed in June 2021 near the nest of a large female Burmese python. The camera had been set up to better understand the reproductive biology of these huge snakes. A few hours after installation, the snake moved away and the camera snapped pictures of a bobcat arriving and eating python eggs in the early evening.
“We were completely floored,” Dr Currylow said. “We had no idea that the nests of these snakes were deprecated.”
Apparently the feline decided he rather liked what he found as he returned for another snack three times that night. The next morning, the bobcat returned to cache the uneaten eggs in the ground for later consumption. That evening the bobcat returned, but this time the python was back on its nest. Weighing around 20 pounds, the feline was clearly aware that the 115-pound python posed a serious threat and, rather than trying to eat more eggs, circled the nest from a safe distance for a few minutes before to leave.
The following night, the camera snapped a picture of the two predators in a face-off. Apparently the bobcat felt the clutch was worth fighting for because it came back in the morning and aggravated the python enough to trigger an attack. The strike, which missed the cat, triggered the camera. So did a bobcat counterattack as it struck the huge reptile with its claws.
It’s unclear exactly how the duel ended, but when searchers arrived that evening to retrieve the camera, they found the snake sitting on a badly damaged nest.
“We thought the snake must have caused the damage itself by crushing its own eggs,” Dr Currylow said, “but then we saw the pictures and, well, it was just amazing.”
The researchers removed the snake and analyzed the nest in detail. They found that 42 eggs had been destroyed and 22 were damaged but potentially viable. They collected these eggs and incubated them. None hatched.
While it’s possible that this interaction was just an isolated incident, it’s also possible that native species are beginning to react to the python’s presence.
“Most species of cat adapt their diet to what’s available, so bobcats chasing python eggs aren’t actually that surprising,” said Mathias Tobler, wildlife ecologist at San Diego Zoo Wildlife. Alliance.
Reptile eggs are already part of the Florida bobcat’s diet. Bobcats are known to eat sea turtle eggs, and these may have similarities to python eggs.
“Egg hunting in bobcats is very much a learned behavior,” Dr. Tobler said. “Once some people figure out how to tackle python eggs, they could potentially do it on a fairly regular basis.”
Of course, the big difference between python nests and those of sea turtles is that snake nests are usually guarded. But Dr. Currylow also points out that female pythons generally go without food until their eggs are about to hatch. This is perhaps the main reason why the bobcat survived its adventure.
Whether these felines will eat enough eggs to turn the tide against the python invasion remains to be seen.