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Invasive pythons, not anthropogenic stressors, explain the distribution of a keystone species

January 1, 2016

Untangling the causes of native species loss in human-modified systems is difficult and often controversial. Evaluating the impact of non-native species in these systems is particularly challenging, as additional human perturbations often precede or accompany introductions. One example is the ongoing debate over whether mammal declines within Everglades National Park (ENP) were caused by either the establishment of non-native Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) or the effects of other anthropogenic stressors. We examined the influence of both pythons and a host of alternative stressors—altered hydrology and habitat characteristics, mercury contamination and development—on the distribution of the marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris), a once common mammal in ENP. Distance from the epicenter of the python invasion best explained marsh rabbit occurrence in suitable habitat patches, whereas none of the alternative stressors considered could explain marsh rabbit distribution. Estimates of the probability of marsh rabbit occurrence ranged from 0 at the python invasion epicenter to nearly 1.0 150 km from the invasion epicenter. These results support the hypothesis that invasive pythons shape the distribution of marsh rabbits in southern Florida. The loss of marsh rabbits and similar species will likely alter trophic interactions and ecosystem function within the Everglades, an internationally important hotspot of biodiversity. Further, our results suggest that non-native species can have profound impacts on mainland biodiversity.

Publication Year 2016
Title Invasive pythons, not anthropogenic stressors, explain the distribution of a keystone species
DOI 10.1007/s10530-016-1221-3
Authors Adia R. Sovie, Robert A. McCleery, Robert J. Fletcher, Kristen M. Hart
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Biological Invasions
Index ID 70200941
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Wetland and Aquatic Research Center