Invasive boa constrictors pose problems in Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Friday December 7, 2012 – Swift action is being urged to halt the spread of boa constrictors in Puerto Rico now that new research shows the invasive species has established a breeding population on the United States island territory.

“We’ve learned from dealing with other invasive snakes that understanding the source of these populations and preventing spread as soon as possible is important to protect ecosystems,” Bob Reed, a scientist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), said in a statement.

“Once non-native snakes become established across a large area, especially in densely forested areas, they become much more difficult to find and almost impossible to eradicate,” added Reed, who was involved in the new study.

Boa constrictors, which are native to parts of Central and South America, can grow up to 10 feet long, are wide-bodied, and weigh up to 75 pounds.

In Puerto Rico, there are no natural predators to keep the boa’s rapidly expanding numbers in check.

The growing population represents the first breeding group of boa constrictors in the United States outside of south Florida, where these snakes, as well as pythons, have become a serious problem.

The genetic study found that individual boas in Puerto Rico are closely related, indicating the invasive population likely stemmed from a small group of snakes, which were probably released accidentally in connection with the exotic pet trade.

In the past, most boas recovered on the island were illegal pets or strays. But in the last year, researchers say that 150 boas have been removed from the wild in an expanding area of Mayaguez, a municipality in western Puerto Rico.

The study also showed that strays found in the northern part of the island are closely related to the Mayaguez population, suggesting that the boas are inadvertently being transported long distances — in trucks carrying agricultural produce, for example. This finding highlights the speed at which an invasive species can colonize an island ecosystem.

This new research was detailed last month in the journal Biological Invasions. Click here to receive free news bulletins via email from Caribbean360. (View sample)