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Iguana Invasion

Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida

and what to do about them

Squirrel Monkey
Squirrel Monkey


November, 2014: Giant Air-breathing Fish on the Loose in Florida*

Snakehead fish

The myth is the snakefish climbs out of the water and bites you with its poisonous and scary-big teeth.

The truth is, the bite is not poisonous.

Since 2000, Bullseye Snakeheads have populated the lakes and canals of South Florida, yet another exotic species that should not be on the loose in our state. Local fishermen have reported catching as many as 40 of these big fish on a single outing. The largest catch was a 14-pounder pulled from Broward County's C-14 Canal.

Fortunately, these fish are flavorful and healthy.

Native to Asia, the Snakehead is an air-breathing fish. It has a torpedo-shaped body, red eyes, and golden brown to dark brown coloring. An identifying dark spot rimmed with orange lies at the base of the tail fin.

An aggressive fish, it will give you a good run if you catch one on your line.

Bottom dwellers, the Snakehead eats mainly smaller fish and crayfish. But it will feast on land animals if given the chance including turtles, frogs, lizards and snakes.

In Florida, it is a crime to possess a live Snakehead and to breed them. There is a fine if you are caught releasing one in state waters. But if you catch one in a local lake or canal on your next fishing expedition, be aware that they do make good eating. In Asia, they are eaten for both taste and the ability to hasten wound healing.

*"Florida Snakehead Fishing," Bassonline.com, November 3, 2104; "Bullseye Snakehead: Channa marulias," www.myfwc.com; "Record Bullseye Snakehead, invasive fish, found in Broward canal, HuffPo Miami, March 17, 2013

Photo by FWC

September, 2014: Invasives in Florida and in the News


Lionfish dominate the media these days as the top invasive species causing problems in Florida. But when an aggressive African crocodile was captured in the Everglades, the blogosphere was abuzz. And after the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) estimated there are 150,000 Burmese Pythons in the Glades, the news stations were all over it.

There's always something wild to talk about in Florida.

Let's start with the Lionfish. The FWC has launched an app so that divers and fishermen/fisherwomen can contact state wildlife officials whenever they spot the unwanted species in our waters. If you download the app, you can fast track photos to the FWC for their data records. The information will help in determining which locations need the most attention. Lionfish, which are native to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, have been spotted in Sebastian Inlet, Indian River Lagoon, Port Canaveral, Jupiter Inlet, and elsewhere. Supposedly, they make good eating. This is fortunate because they need to be eradicated from our waters. These non-native fish are outcompeting and consuming our native fish. And they are a threat to our coral reefs.

While python hunters were trekking though the Everglades looking for the invasive snakes, they discovered a juvenile Nile Crocodile. This African species will grow to a length of 16 feet and weigh 1000 pounds. Males can reach 20 feet and weigh as much as 2000 pounds. In Africa, large prey including humans are on the menu for this aggressive species.

Fortunately, the croc was small, only five feet long and less than 40 pounds. It was captured and sent to the Everglades Alligator Farm in Homestead. DNA studies are being conducted to see if it escaped from a reptile facility in Miami-Dade. If so, a hefty fine will be levied. If this species of crocodile were to breed in the Everglades, our native animals would be in danger. We would be too.

In the meantime, the raccoon population in the Everglades has decreased more than 90 percent and both fox and marsh rabbits have disappeared. Wildlife officials were blaming the out of control invasive python population until necropsies on the snakes showed they appear to be living on a diet of cotton rats. Research continues in the hope of discovering why some of the native inhabitants of our state are quickly disappearing, replaced by non-native species. Animals that should make their home in faraway lands. And seas.

Jim Waymer, "App helps Florida curb lionfish invasion," USA Today, August 23, 2014; Christine Stapleton, "Capture of Nile crocodile adds to Everglades invasion risk," Palm Beach Post, March 9, 2014; Darryl Fears, "150,000 Burnese Pythons in the Everglades. Nothing to be afraid of," The Washington Post, July 16, 2014

Photo by Magnus Manske

February 5, 2014: Wild pets enjoying the mild Florida winter*

Bobby Hill, a snake control agent for the South Florida Water Management District, with an 18-foot Burmese python he killed on Tuesday about five miles north of Tamiami Trail in the Everglades. SOUTH FLORIDA WATER MANAGEMENT DISTRICT

While the rest of the U.S. digs out yet again, sunny South Florida is basking in the glorious sunshine of another warm winter. The weather is great for tourists, but not so good for our invasive species problem.

Yesterday, for example, an 18-foot Burmese Python was captured in the Everglades, just a few miles north of Tamiami Trail. These huge snakes are not native to Florida, but are released pets, far from their native home of Southern and Southeast Asia. Anywhere else in the U.S., it is doubtful these non-native reptiles could survive this year's frigid cold and multiple snow storms. But here in Florida, pythons continue to thrive.

Remember the winter of 2010 when 30 degree nights killed off most of the invasive iguana population? Well, they're baaaack. Several mild winters in a row have allowed the hardy survivors of that one cold season to reproduce. Now our lawns and parks are full of sunbathing reptiles again. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Green Iguana has rebounded to pre-2010 levels.

No need to panic, though. Iguanas are harmless. No need to report them or kill them. These mild-mannered vegetarians are not a threat to people or to the environment. But they will devour your landscaping.

Here's some sensible advice for dealing with these backyard critters from the University of Florida.

Tips for dealing with iguanas**
  • Just live with them but don't feed them
  • Protect plants with cages or screens
  • Install sheet metal or a bucket with hole around bottom of trees
  • Plant iguana-resistant plants such as citrus, oleander, milkweed
  • Don't plant food they like: hibiscus, orchids, impatiens, pink pentas, roses, bougainvillea, nasturtiums, kale, broccoli, mustard, collards, sorrel, beets, lettuces, squashes, melons, turf grass
  • Although it may be legal to trap or kill them, depending on local ordinances, they are still protected by state anti-cruelty laws.
*Curtis Morgan, "18-foot python captured in Florida Everglades," Miami Herald, February 4, 2014; David Fleshler, "They're back! Green iguanas gulping gardens again," Sun Sentinel, June 16, 2013

**Source: University of Florida

October 14, 2013: Pythons on the Loose Killing Florida Pets*

A recent rash of python attacks has Florida residents nervous.

Earlier this month, sheriff's deputies in Port Salerno captured a 10-foot albino Burmese Python. Called to a residential neighborhood by concerned homeowners, the officers attempted to corral the huge white and yellow snake. In a defensive move, the reptile regurgitated a recent meal: a full-grown cat and a kitten, both dead. The snake was removed by state wildlife officials.

In September, a more dangerous python species was responsible for the death of a dog in Miami-Dade County. A 60-pound Siberian Husky was strangled in front of its horrified owners by an African Rock Python. The dog died within minutes. Wildlife officials are expanding their efforts to eradicate rock pythons from Miami-Dade County, where they have become a threat to safety and the environment. So far, 41 of these nasty-tempered snakes have been captured in the area.

In Florida, pythons on the loose are former pets that were dumped in parks and suburban neighborhoods, or they are the offspring of abandoned pets. Persons who release these non-native reptiles are breaking Florida law and are subject to a stiff fine and jail time.

Last summer, two young boys were killed by an African Rock Python. The kids were sleeping in an apartment located upstairs from an exotic pet store. The snake escaped its enclosure and moved through the ventilation system to where the boys, age 5 and 7, were sleeping. This occurred in New Brunswick, Canada, not in Florida. But one can imagine that camping outside in python infested Florida neighborhoods is not safe for young children.

Pythons do not make good pets. They are dangerous and, whether abandoned or escaped, can pose a threat to domestic animals and humans.

*Peter Burke, "10-foot albino Burmese python kills 2 cats," Treasure Coast News, wpbf.com, October 1, 2013; Natalie DiBlasio, "Python attacks and kills 60-pound Siberian husky," USA Today, September 11, 2013; Doug Stanglin and Michael Winter, "Escaped python kills 2 young boys in Canada," USA Today, August 6, 2013

July 1, 2013: You Never Know What Kind of Wildlife You'll See in Florida*

Springtime in Florida is hot, wet, and full of wild animals roaming around suburban neighborhoods. At least that was the case this past spring. Non-native animals on the loose around the state included a Savannah named Nyla, a capuchin monkey, a 6-foot llama, and a 200-pound kangaroo. Sound like a zoo? Wildlife officials think so.

In April, a Florida resident was relaxing in her screened-in pool in Land o' Lakes when she saw a wildcat roaming outside the enclosure. She snapped a few photos of the tall, leggy, spotted feline, which resembled a small leopard or ocelot. Turns out the visitor was just Nyla, a pet Savannah on the loose. A cross between the Serval, a type of African wildcat, and the domestic cat, Savannahs can weigh 30 pounds and are the largest domestic cats in the world. To the woman hiding in her swimming pool, however, the animal did not appear to be domesticated. Savannahs are only illegal in certain parts of the U.S., such as New York City. Nyla was captured and returned to her owners.

A month later, traffic along U.S. 1 in the Keys was interrupted by a capuchin monkey on the loose. Kayla, age 11, ran in and out of a grove of mangroves, crossing the busy highway several times, before animal control officers were able to corner the fleet-footed primate. She was wearing a shock collar, but that hadn't stopped her from escaping her owner, who was fishing nearby. Native to Central and South America, capuchins are popular pets because of their keen intelligence.

In early June, an adult llama was on the run in Tallahassee. Three sheriff's deputies were forced to taser the 300-pound animal. The llama had escaped from his pen, and was returned to his owner.

The same day but across the state in Lacoochee, Pasco County dispatchers were ignoring what they thought were prank calls about a kangaroo on the loose. Once the five-foot marsupial was spotted in the middle of U.S. 301, however, officers responded. They spent hours trying to capture the male animal, which kept them on the run. The officers tasered him, they shot him with tranquilizers, and finally they cornered the poor animal by a fence and dog-piled on to subdue him. Sounds like a scene from Jackass, doesn't it? Although officials expected the owner of a kangaroo farm in the area to come forward and claim the animal, this did not occur, turning the search for the owner of the exotic pet into a criminal investigation.

Now it's summer and Florida is hot, wet, and full of wild animals that should not be here. More reports to come.

*Cait McVey, "Rare big cat found roaming in Land O'Lakes," Bay News 9, April 3, 2013; Gwen Filosa, "Monkey runs wild on U.S. 1," Keysnews.com, May 15, 2013; AP, "Llama busts loose in Florida, subdued with taser," June 3, 2013; Ashley Porter, "Kangaroo captured after marsupial melee in Lacoochee," Channel 10 News, June 3, 2013

May 25, 2013: Biggest Burmese Python Captured in Florida*

A Florida International University student recently captured and killed the largest Burmese Python ever found in the wild in Florida. The student was out with friends on the night of May 11th in a rural area of Miami-Dade county when he spotted the snake. Since he had in the past owned pythons as pets, the young man knew how to handle them. He was able to net the massive reptile but, when it coiled around him, he was forced to kill it with a knife. Wildlife researchers at the University of Florida performed the necropsy and measured the snake at 18 feet 8 inches in length and 128 pounds.

Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Earlier this year, 68 pythons were caught during a contest held in the Everglades. Hunters came from 38 states, D.C. and Canada to look for snakes loose in the wild. The longest snake caught during the month-long contest was 14 feet 3 inches.

*Victoria Taylor, "Biggest python ever captured in Florida caught in Miami-Dade county," New York Daily News, May 21, 2013; Christine Roberts, "Florida 'Python Challenge' concludes with just 68 snakes caught," New York Daily News, February 17, 2013

April 15, 2013: Giant Snails: They may move slow, but they reproduce fast*

The Giant African Land Snail has made a new home for itself in several Miami neighborhoods, including Hialeah and Little Haiti. First spotted in 2011, the extra-large gastropod is now being systematically eradicated. So far, more than 117,000 of the non-native mollusks have been removed from yards in South Florida.

A number of species fall under the heading Giant African Land Snail. The species making a new home in Florida is the Giant East African Snail (Achatina fulica). Native to East Africa, the voracious terrestrial pulmonate has been found in countries of the Pacific rim, Hawaii, and islands in the Caribbean. Barbados is overrun with these pesky snails. They can grow to a length of eight inches and produce 1200 eggs a year. Since each one has both male and female reproductive organs, the population multiplies rapidly. And they are not picky eaters, dining on more than 500 species of plants, as well as crunching on plaster and stucco, both high in calcium, a mineral that helps to strengthen the mollusk's shell.

Federal and state officials began eradication efforts in 2011 after the snails were discovered in a Miami homeowner's yard. Workers were sent house to house in the affected neighborhoods to catch invaders one by one. There is some concern the growing population will cause illness as the species can carry a parasite known to affect humans.

It is illegal to bring Giant African Land Snails into the U.S. without a special permit, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not issued such permits in years. So, where did the snails come from? Wildlife officials are not sure. In 1966, a similar invasion occurred after a child returning from Hawaii brought home three snails and later let them loose in a Miami yard. The state spent a million dollars over ten years to capture 18,000 offspring. This time, there are thousands more on the loose.

An investigation into the source of the problem is underway. An African priest in one of the affected neighborhoods was arrested when it was discovered he was housing seven snails along with more than fifty eggs. The snails were smuggled into the U.S. for use in healing rituals. An African priestess has also been implicated.

Be prepared for an onslaught of public education materials on the invasion. When a symposium on Giant African Land Snails was held last week in Gainesville, experts decided that the rest of us need to become informed and involved. Look for information on billboards, buses, and in movie theatres.

African Land Snails do not make good pets. They are illegal in this country. On the loose in South Florida, they will damage the environment, threaten homeowners, and eat their way through gardens and parks. If you see one in your yard, report it to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services: 1.800.HELPFLA.

*Barbara Liston, "Florida battles slimy invasion of giant snails," Reuters, April 15, 2013; Arian Campo-Flores, "Giant alien snails attack Miami, though they're not in much of a rush," Wall Street Journal, October 4, 2011

February 5, 2013: Beware of the Lionfish

The Red Lionfish is beautiful, but dangerous. This brightly colored fish is known for its ability to impart a painful, venomous sting, but recent reports also link consumption of the flesh to the threat of serious illness in humans.

Native to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, the striped fish is often found in aquariums because it is delightful to observe—but not touch; the spines can inflict a nasty sting. Some pet owners don't like how big the fish become—they can grow to a foot in length—or how dangerous they are, so many of the unwanted pets have been "set free." Years of pet dumping and breeding in warming waters have resulted in an invasion of lionfish in the southeastern Atlantic and the Caribbean. Their presence where they are not native is a threat to the environment as these voracious fish outcompete native fish and make a pretty nuisance of themselves. Lionfish do not have predators once they leave their native habitat, and they are prolific breeders.

Some environmentalists, chefs, and divers are advising us to hunt and eat the non-native fish so that we can help to reduce the booming population. However, federal and local agencies recommend that we do not eat lionfish. Several studies have shown the fish to be infected with ciguatoxin, a neurotoxin that can cause illness in humans.

Ciguatoxin is produced by microscoptic sea plants, which are eaten by small reef fish. As larger fish consume the smaller fish, the toxin moves up the food chain, becoming more and more concentrated. Lionfish—like grouper, barracuda, amberjack, and snapper—are subtropical and tropical fish predators. The levels of ciguatoxin in the flesh meat of such large fish can be dangerously high.

Symptoms of ciguatoxin poisoning include nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, itching, tingling, slowed heart rate, decreased blood pressure, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, depression, and headaches. These side effects can last for months and the cause can difficult to pinpoint. Perhaps the most bizarre symptom of ciguatoxin poisoning is an inability to distinguish hot from cold. Anyone experiencing this odd sensation might want to think about what they've been eating lately.

Cooking does not inactivate the ciguatoxin. There is no effective treatment and no known antidote. At least 50,000 cases of ciguatoxin poisoning are reported worldwide every year. But the numbers are probably much higher since it is so difficult to diagnose.

Tazio Bervoets of the St. Maarten Nature Foundation expressed disappointment with the results of studies conducted on lionfish caught in island waters. "This is very bad news for us, as we were planning on promoting lionfish as an edible, commercially viable fish, which we hoped would help in reducing its numbers along the reefs. However, before we started telling the community that the fish is edible we wanted to be absolutely sure that there were no health care threats associated with eating the fish…we tested several samples of lionfish meat and have found that unfortunately an uncomfortably high percentage showed the presence of ciguatoxin in the meat. Therefore we do not recommend that lionfish be eaten."

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration found unacceptable levels of ciguatoxin in 4 out of 7 lionfish samples assayed. The FDA does not endorse the consumption of lionfish. The Florida Sea Grant advisory has informed their agents and the public about this safety recommendation.

The Red Lionfish is yet another pet that should not have been abandoned in the wild, where it is causing problems that could so easily have been avoided.

*"Red Lionfish and Ciguatoxin: Menace spreading through the Western Hemisphere," Annals of Emergency Medicine, vol. 60, July 2012, pp. A21-A22; Maureen Halsema, "Lionfish Tournaments: Safety Tips," Alert Divers, www.DiversAlertNetwork.org; "Eating lionfish is not recommended," The Daily Herald, November 22, 2011; Erick Gill, "Florida Sea Grant says not to eat lionfish," Treasure Coast Palm, July 2, 2012; David McFadden, "St. Maarten lionfish tainted with toxin," Huffington Post, November 24, 2011

January 2013: Python Challenge attracting hundreds of hunters*

In 2012, approximately 272 pythons were removed from the wild in Florida. Sound like a lot? Wildlife officials do not think the tally is high enough. They want more people to chip in and help get rid of the non-native reptiles living and breeding in the Everglades.

If you have a valid hunting license and you're willing to learn some safety rules online, you can fork over twenty-five dollars to join in the fun. The Python Challenge was launched this weekend and has attracted much public attention. So far, 800 enthusiastic people have signed up for this special contest, which lasts until February 10th. Participants are trekking through the Everglades in four designated hunting areas, including Big Cypress National Preserve. Whoever traps the largest python will win $1000 and whoever bags the most takes home $1500.

Normally, hunters look for pythons during reptile hunting season in the spring. This is the first time cash prizes have been offered. But state officials are concerned about the non-native snake population. They are hoping the rest of us can pitch in and help stop the spread of these invasive animals.

PETA, a vocal and active national animal rights organization, has called for restrictions on methods for killing the wild snakes. Hunters are being encouraged to sever the head, but not to chop snakes into pieces.

Will online safety lessons adequately prepare hunters for combat with massive reptiles? The largest Burmese Python ever found in the Everglades was 17 feet long and weighed more than 150 pounds. Perhaps this is why the contest is called a challenge.

Sound dangerous? Or inhumane? Wildlife officials don't agree. The contest is being sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the University of Florida in Gainesville, The Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Federation of Florida, and Zoo Miami.

*Eric Staats, "Money Python," Naples Daily News, December 10, 2012; "Florida opens python hunting contest," UPI.com, January 12, 2013

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New book:

Iguana Invasion! Exotic Pets Gone Wild in Florida

by Virginia Aronson and Allyn Szejko

Available at your local bookseller, Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, and Pineapple Press.

Book CoverFind out more here.

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