Wolves, chills and pythons: Next wave of Lowcountry invasive species might not play so nice

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigators remove an unlicensed Burmese python from a west central Florida home, Friday, Sept. 11, 2009 near Lake Apopka, Fla. The male python was 11 feet long, while the female was 17 feet long and weighed more than 150 pounds. A hybrid Burmese-African Rock python could be bigger and more aggressive. (George Skene, Orlando Sentinel)

Think coyotes are a menace? They might be just be a forerunner of a number of "invasive species from hell" expected to start turning up in the Lowcountry - the next generations of an onslaught of foreign plants, germs and animals already beginning to wreak havoc here.

Because of factors such as warming weather and greater international transport, the number of invasive species increases each year, "and there's the potential for things to get worse or the things we already have here could get worse," said John Klavitter, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service national invasive species program coordinator.

At least some Eastern coyotes, in fact, might be "coywolves" - literally, coyotes crossbred with wolves. That's far from the worst of it. How about giant hybrid pythons? Or dengue-fever-like chikungunya virus? Both now are as close as Florida and the Caribbean.

"We're always concerned about what happens in Florida, because as Florida goes, so goes the Southeast," said Sherry Aultman, of Clemson University's organic certification program, who deals with invasive plant species.

Let's not even start a list that eventually could soon include species like killer bees, tree-eating Asian longhorn beetles and voracious Asian carp. Here's a look at the wolf, virus and snake:

Coywolf


Cause: Coyote and red wolf species are genetically very similar and occasionally interbreed. By the time the red wolf had been reintroduced to the mainland wild in North Carolina in the late 1980s, coyotes already had turned up in the state. About one-third of the Northeastern coyote population shares genes with the Great Lakes wolf, a type of the much larger gray wolf.

Hybrid: A larger coyote with more of the wolf's jaw - capable of bringing down larger prey such as deer - and potentially a lot less of the wolf's reserve about living near inhabited areas like suburbs. Researchers aren't certain about behavior modifications, said conservation geneticist Christine Bozarth, who studied the hybrid.

Proximity: The Great Lakes wolf genetic marker was found in one coyote tested at the Savannah River Ecology Lab, Bozarth said. Others have been found as far south as Virginia. Researchers at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina are working to keep re-introduced red wolves from interbreeding with coyotes.

Chikungunya fever


Cause: Mosquito-borne virus causing epidemics in Africa and Asia.

Symptoms: Fever, headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, rash, and joint pain. Similar to dengue fever. Lasts a few days to a few weeks.

Proximity: British Virgin Islands and other Caribbean resort islands. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that southern U.S. outbreaks are probable.

Giant hybrid python


Cause: Crossbreed of the world's largest python, the Burmese, and one of its most aggressive, the African rock python.

Hybrid: A 20-foot-long snake as thick as a telephone pole. Could be stronger, more durable and aggressive than the Burmese.

Proximity: Both pythons are now overrunning south Florida habitats and wildlife. A U.S. Geological Survey study suggests the snake could move throughout the Southeast.

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