Burmese pythons, one of the most deadliest types of invasive reptiles, are now indirectly killing native Florida pygmy rattlesnakes with parasitic worms, according to a new study.

Stetson University researchers, which were alarmed by this situation, analyzed how these worms might have traveled inside pygmy rattlesnakes’ bodies, said a Stetson University press release. The team, which published their findings in Herpetological Review, discovered that these bloodsucking worms were spread by invasive Burmese pythons and these parasites are killing pygmy rattlesnakes native to Florida, USA Today reported.

According to the team, these invasive worms were located in Central Florida, more than 100 miles away from where Burmese pythons live in South Florida. However, how the parasite travels is interesting: It could get around by “hitching rides” in host critters, such as other reptiles, that Florida snakes eat, which could bring these invasive worms to other areas outside of the state.

The study suggests that pentastome parasites or worms, most likely caused the deaths of three pygmy rattlesnakes at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge in DeLeon Springs, Florida. Last August, Dr. Terence Farrell of Stetson University and Dr. Craig Lind of Stockton University, were shocked when they found wiggling, parasitic worms oozing out of a dead pygmy rattlesnake’s mouth while they were examining it.

“Dr. Lind and I have been studying pygmy rattlesnakes for decades and found this occurrence pretty alarming,” Dr. Farrell said in the press release. “We conducted research and found that these types of parasites have never been found in pygmy rattlesnakes before.”

Photo Credit: Dr. Terence Farrell/Stetson University

Farrell and his students conducted tests on the three pygmy rattlesnakes, and found the same type of bloodsucking, parasitic worms located in the reptiles’ respiratory systems, including their lung and trachea areas.

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The bigger mystery was how these parasites would have arrived there, since they typically live in the lungs of reptiles that become infected after eating prey that’s contaminated. The team collaborated with the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine to test the serpents’ DNA and determine how these parasitic worms were introduced to pygmy rattlesnakes, Fox News reported. DNA sequences of the parasites found in the pygmy rattlesnakes were consistent with the parasite species normally found in Burmese pythons.

“The parasites that were found in the pygmy rattlesnakes were larger than the ones found in Burmese pythons,” Farrell added. “It’s a nasty situation because the pygmy rattlesnakes haven’t evolved or developed defenses against the parasite.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only issue that could stem from these parasitic worms: According to Farrell, they could become a problem across the U.S. in the future if additional precautions aren’t taken to handle the situation.

“The research tells us that there’s a whole new concern about invasive species and the diseases and parasites that they bring with them,” said Farrell. “This parasite isn’t just a Florida problem. We have no idea how much of the U.S. this parasite will spread and move into, which may cause it to become a nationwide problem in a few years.”

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