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Mysterious python parasite threatens Florida's native snakes, pushing toward their 'extreme decline'

Bill Kearney, South Florida Sun Sentinel on

Published in News & Features

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A mysterious parasite from Asia is infecting snakes over most of Florida, and researchers believe it was likely brought here by invasive Burmese pythons.

The first documentations of the 3-inch-long lungworm in Florida occurred about 10 years ago. Since then it has spread to 27 counties in-state, and just two weeks ago, biologists found it for the first time in Palm Beach County.

The parasite, which travels through the food chain before settling into the lungs of a snake, has infected 17 species of snakes in Florida. They can weaken the reptiles, making them more vulnerable to predators and disease.

“On top of all the other threats our native snakes face (disease, invasive species, habitat loss … poaching) this emerging infectious disease may push, and has pushed, some snake communities to extreme decline,” said University of Central Florida researcher Jenna Palmisano, who founded SLAM (snake lungworm alliance and monitoring), a group of universities and conservation groups studying the invasive parasite.

The lungworm takes quite a grisly journey to reach a snake’s lungs, where they then suck the snake’s blood.

They start out as tiny wormlike crustaceans in the poop of an infected snake. Bugs such as roaches eat the poop, and thus the parasite. Roaches, in turn, are eaten by frogs, small mammals and lizards, including the nonnative brown anoles, curly-tailed lizards and rock agamas. Native snakes then eat those lizards.


How do the lungworms travel from the snake’s digestive system to the lungs? “They bore straight through,” Palmisano said.

Once in the lungs, they molt, mate, lay eggs and feed on the snake’s blood. Researchers aren’t quite sure how, but the eggs move up to the mouth and down the digestive tract, then out as feces, where bugs eat them and start the cycle again.

The female lungworms release eggs into the lungs indefinitely. “These parasites live for years,” said Palmisano.

Smaller snakes seem more vulnerable


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