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Researchers: Invasive Burmese Pythons Can Help Spread Everglades Virus

Creative Commons/skeeze

Researchers say invasive Burmese pythons are depleting so many animals in the Everglades, mosquitoes there are mainly biting a species of rat that carries a virus dangerous to humans. 

The hispid cotton rat is one of the only known hosts of the mosquito-borne Everglades virus. Symptoms include fever, headache and even encephalitis in some rare cases. On WGCU's Gulf Coast Live, University of Florida researcher Nathan Burkett-Cadena said mosquitoes are biting that rat more than any other mammal in the Everglades.

He said it’s because as invasive Burmese pythons eat up every other animal, cotton rats are multiplying faster. That leaves it as the main source of blood for mosquitoes. Burkett-Cadena led a team of graduate students who discovered this.

"As we try to understand our results, it's hit us that wow these animals just aren’t available anymore," he said.

Animals like deer, rabbits and raccoons that these mosquitoes used to also bite in the Everglades. Burkett-Cadena said one positive thing is this type of mosquito, called Culex cedecei, stays in the wild and out of urban areas. So they’re less likely to spread Everglades virus among humans.

But a mosquito that transmits related viruses has been newly introduced to the swamp that also survives in cities: The Culex panocosa mosquito.

"We don’t know where panocosa are going to come in contact with cotton rats and where that distribution would overlap with the range of cedecei," he said. 

Burkett-Cadena said that overlap will be the focus of their research the next few years. 

Copyright 2020 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.