Author: Russell Gray
The Florida Problem
Invasive and non-native species in Florida are a huge ecological issue that is being tackled by several agencies, including the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC), United States Geological Survey (USGS), the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), and University of Florida CrocDocs lab. While working with the CrocDocs I was able to work alongside these various agencies, learning about the magnitude of these alien species and their adverse effects on the ecosystem.
As stated in another post, Florida has more invasive/non-native species than the all countries of the world combined. This is not an exaggeration; it is an extremely unfortunate truth of the situation. While many species have various reasons for their establishment, our lab focused on herpetofauna; specially, Argentinian black and white tegus, gold tegus, Burmese pythons, North African rock pythons, Nile monitors, green iguanas, various chameleon species, and spectacled caiman.
In order to monitor and remove invasive reptiles from the marshlands of south Florida, we conducted several different projects – surveys for pythons, iguanas, chameleons, and caiman, traps for iguanas, Nile monitors, and tegus, and additional radio telemetry tracking for tegus.
These species all have different backstories for how they’ve become established in south Florida, but realistically the biggest drivers are 1) the exotic pet trade and lax laws and enforcement of exotic pets in Florida, 2) the likelihood for Florida to be hit by hurricanes, and 3) the climate of Florida allowing exotic species to easily survive and proliferate.
The exotic pet trade in Florida is unbelievably liberal in that most species can be sold with a simple once a year permit, not species-by-species, just a piece of paper that basically that says “you can sell animals that aren’t from here”. The issue with this is that south Florida is a hub for illegal animal trafficking, because once animals are smuggled into the state via ports of entry and make landfall in the US, they are legal to sell. There are also extremely irresponsible pet owners in south Florida that purposely dump their exotic pets outdoors and sometimes even in protected areas, either thinking they’re doing a good deed, or intentionally doing it to attempt a self-sustaining breeding population that they can collect from and sell for profit. Other pet owners aren’t as ignorant or malicious, which is where hurricanes come in. Florida gets hit by dangerous weather systems often. These strong winds destroy houses, facilities and quite easily – animal enclosures. Many exotic pet owners don’t put in the effort to bring their reptile collections with them when they’re forced to evacuate the state due to hurricanes, and therefore the animals that get left behind are more likely do have their enclosures destroyed during natural disaster events and break free.
To be frank, the invasive problem in south Florida will likely never be completely solved, and there seems to be new invasive popping up on almost a yearly basis. Kudos to those who continue to put in the effort to control them; however, in the long run, the money will stop coming, and the personnel will dwindle. It’s a self-defeating uphill battle, and the worst part about it is that the scientists (like myself) who are forced to euthanize these animals are the ones who are most passionate about saving them; all of this due to a byproduct of poor regulations, careless pet owners, and complete disregard for the natural world.