News from Florida about disappearing opossums, raccoons and deer resulting from hungry Burmese pythons is alarming. The same is true for foxes and rabbits.

These pythons have been found to be solely responsible for the rapid decline, and when each of these species vanishes, mosquitoes must feed on rats, which have miraculously survived. Rats can carry encephalitis and that puts humans at risk of acquiring the disease.

This began sometime in the 1980s, when pet pythons were regarded as exotic pets. A newborn python is just 10 inches long, and much to the surprise of owners, those babies grow 20 times that size. As pythons grew, frightened owners began to release them into the Everglades, and the numbers have grown ever since. Hurricane Andrew, which destroyed a reptile breeding facility in 1992, was also partly responsible. Now Everglades National Park is teeming with giant Burmese pythons and there is no end in sight.

Burmese pythons are one of the six largest kinds of snakes in the world. They can weigh up to 200 pounds and can grow to sizeable lengths. The largest pythons are always female. They can grow from 13 to approximately 18 feet, while the males grow from 8 to 17 feet.

Burmese pythons are dark-colored with many brown blotches bordered in black down the back. The attractiveness of their skin pattern contributes to their popularity with reptile keepers and the leather industry. They are native to a large variation of tropical and subtropical areas of the Southern and Southeast Asia.

Pythons are constrictors, therefore they don’t have fangs and are not venomous. Their back curving teeth are used to seize and hold their prey.

Pythons have two lungs, one more than most snakes. This species lacks eyelids, but it does have a thin epidermal membrane covering the eyes to protect them. Pythons have small heat pits, or holes in their upper lip, which allows them to detect heat radiations from any animal nearby. They are able to smell with the aid of the “Jacobson’s organ” in the roof the mouth. They dart their tongues in out of their mouths to obtain gases in the air. The gas detection method allows the python to catch its prey in light or dark conditions.

Pythons do not have to eat very often, and for this reason they have proven invaluable in research to study digestion and surprisingly, heart disease.

Pythons are known for their enormous appetites. Like all snakes, they are meat eaters. In a single meal, they can devour animals as big as they are. There was a recent report about a 16-foot long Burmese python swallowing a 76-pound deer. The digestive process to such large prey has made pythons a model species to study how food is digested.

Within a day the internal organs can double in size and the metabolic rate, insulin production and lipid levels rise extraordinarily. The entire digestive system undergoes a massive remodeling, with rapid swelling of the intestines, production of stomach acid and a 40 percent increase in mass of the ventricles of the heart in order to fuel the digestive process. The python’s organs return to normal size in a few days and metabolism slows. The snake can then fast for months, for even a year, without losing muscle mass or showing ill effects.

Of particular interest was the method by which a gorging python expands its heart by enlarging existing cells and not by creating new ones. Despite the massive amount of fatty acids in the bloodstream following digestion, there is no evidence of fat deposition in the python's heart and there is increase in the activity of a key enzyme known to protect the heart from damage. These facts have made pythons an ideal model to study heart disease and its prevention.

For anyone who contemplates purchasing a Burmese python as a pet, it is wise to ensure that the animal has clear firm skin, a rounded body shape, a clear vent (the posterior opening for urinary and fecal excretion), clear eyes, and that it actively flicks its tongue around when handled. On the other hand, a prospective buyer should remember that the snake may grow to more than 15 feet long, weigh up to 200 pounds, have bowel and bladder habits like a horse and live more than 25 years, and that you have to kill mice, rats and eventually rabbits to feed it.

Additionally, pythons are wild animals, unpredictable and dangerous. Something for pet owners to carefully consider.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry. He has taught college courses on regulatory and compliance issues at Ivy Tech, Grace College and Butler University. Sherman has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge on all levels. Eclectic Science, the title of his column, will touch on famed doctors and scientists, human senses, aging, various diseases, and little-known facts about many species, including their contributions to scientific research. He can be reached by email at maxsherman339@ gmail.com.