09 March 2019

UTA News Center: “Genomic evidence of rapid adaptation of invasive Burmese pythons to their new environment in Florida”

Florida has become a haven for invasive species in the United States, but perhaps the most well-known of the state’s alien residents is the Burmese python. These giant snakes, native to Southeast Asia, have become well-established over the past few decades and even flourish in their new environment.

In Burmese pythons, we observed the rapid establishment and expansion of an invasive population in Florida, which is quite ecologically distinct from Southeast Asia and likely imposes significant ecological selection on the invasive Burmese python population, said Todd Castoe, biology professor at The University of Texas at Arlington and director of the Castoe Lab. This situation had all of the hallmarks of a system where rapid adaptation could occur, so we were excited to test for this possibility using cutting-edge genomic approaches.

The University of Texas at Arlington

Fascinating! If some alien civilization ever visits Earth in the distant future – or if our far-removed descendants examine fossil records from the Anthropocene – one can imagine their surprise to uncover species without any local ancestry appearing out or nowhere in the ecosystem. The article above is far from the only example of ‘invasive’ species adapting and flourishing in new environments: many mammals in Australia were imported by humans at some point in recent history – including about a million wild camels!

Researchers with Burmese pythons in Florida
Researchers with Burmese pythons in Florida

But the strangest adaptation story surely belongs to the hippos on Colombia’s Magdalena River. Brought to the country by the drug lord Pablo Escobar for his private zoo, they have been freed after his death and are multiplying ever since in the jungle. I’m not sure if a tiny initial population of four can deliver viable offspring long-term, but for now they seem to be thriving. I’m curious to see how their story will unfold, if they will become part of the ecosystem over the next century, like the camels in the Australian outback.

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