Floridians could begin seeing a new slithery item on their menus — Burmese pythons. The invasive species is so out of control in the state that the government may begin encouraging the new meal as a way to help keep the snake's numbers under control, as long as they aren't filled with toxic mercury.
Before the recommendation, though, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has teamed up with the Florida Department of Health to find out if the mercury levels in pythons are safe to consume.
If that's the case, python hunter Donna Kalil is already ahead of the game. She hunts pythons for the South Florida Water Management District and estimates that she's eaten a dozen pythons over the last three years or so, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
"It's a wonderful tasting meat," Kalil told the Sentinel. She describes it as an "acquired thought process" more than an "acquired taste."
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The python problem
Burmese pythons became established in the mid-1990s in the Everglades National Park, in South Florida, likely as released or escaped pets and then became invasive, according to the FWC. A species becomes invasive when it ends up somewhere it shouldn't, due to humans, and upsets the balance of its new ecosystem, which has not evolved to cope with alien invaders, Live Science previously reported.
Recent data suggests the population of pythons is expanding north and west within the Sunshine State. The longest Burmese python captured in Florida was over 18 feet (5.4 meters) long. Typically, they average between 6 and 9 feet (1.8 and 2.7 m). Due to their large size, the snakes have few predators and will consume a variety of animals, including mammals, birds and even alligators. Some of these prey are threatened or endangered native species, according to the FWC.
It's not unheard of for an invasive or just pesky species to be eaten as a means of controlling their populations. In Florida, the non-native lionfish and wild boar can be consumed for example. Even iguanas have been dubbed the "chicken of the trees," with the University of Florida publishing recipe ideas. So what is different about pythons?
Python meat may be particularly vulnerable to mercury contamination, which poses a threat to human health.
Mercury is a naturally occurring element in Earth's crust but human activities, such as mining and burning fossil fuels, have led to high levels of mercury being released into the atmosphere. It is then carried back to Earth through rainfall. Mercury pollution in the Everglades is especially high as water evaporating off its lush vegetation leads to the formation of giant mercury-absorbing rain clouds hovering above the area for most of the year, Live Science previously reported.
When mercury enters our freshwater and seawater systems, certain microorganisms can pick it up and convert it into methylmercury. This form builds up in the food chain as one contaminated animal is eaten by another. For a giant snake, cruising through mercury-infested swamps eating almost anything that moves, the risk of contamination is very real.
Some of the pythons found in the Everglades have previously registered "strikingly high levels of mercury," more than double what the state of Florida considers safe for edible fish, Live Science previously reported. If consumed by humans, mercury poisoning may cause various conditions, including neurological and chromosomal problems and birth defects.
In the new research, scientists will measure mercury levels in tissue from captured pythons. The objective of the study is to develop and share "consumption advisories for Burmese pythons in South Florida to better inform the public," FWC wildlife commission spokeswoman Susan Neel told CNN.
If you are worried about Kalil, who eats python several times a week, you needn't be. Her daughter bought her a mercury-testing kit to confirm the snakes she eats are safe, according to the Sentinel.
Originally published on Live Science.