Scientists in Florida are working to determine if the Burmese python, an invasive species decimating the small-mammal population in the Everglades, is edible.
First, researchers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the state Department of Health must find out if the level of mercury found in the reptile is safe enough before it can be added to the menu.
“Mercury is a natural occurring element in the environment, and it is high in the Everglades. Mercury bioaccumulates in the environment and you will find high levels of mercury at the top of the food chain where pythons have unfortunately positioned themselves,” Mike Kirkland, who manages the Python Elimination Program, told CNN. “We expect the results are going to discourage the public from consuming pythons, but if we can determine that they are safe to eat, that would be very helpful to control their population.”
Pythons started appearing in south Florida in the 1980s after being dumped or escaping as a pet. It is unclear how many now call the Everglades wetland home. Since the state wildlife agency started its Python Elimination Program in 2017, more than 6,000 snakes have been removed.
Mercury is a neurotoxin that can impair brain function and cause damage to the reproductive system, according to the EPA. The Food and Drug Administration does not recommend eating anything with a mercury concentration of more than 0.46 parts per million.
A previous study by the U.S. Geological Survey found a remarkably high level of mercury concentrated in snakes found in the Everglades, considering its diet is mostly rodents. Another more recent study showed lower levels in snakes found in southwest Florida, but higher in pythons captured in the Everglades.
“It is early on in the process for the mercury study. We are currently in the tissue collection stage of the project, and COVID has pushed our timeline back a bit,” Susan Neel, wildlife agency spokeswoman, told CNN. “The plan is to have most of these samples come from pythons that are caught by our contractor program.”
Donna Kalil, the program’s first female python hunter, said the reptiles are very tasty.
Kalil has removed 473 pythons. She uses a mercury test kit on the snakes she catches that are less than 7 feet long. She then harvests them, turning the meat into jerky or other entrées.
“It’s really good when you cook it right,” Kalil told CNN. “This would be a wonderful way to get more people involved with helping us remove pythons from the environment. It would be a good thing for people to hunt and eat them, but we need to make sure they’re safe first.”