Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why Florida should stick to cats and dogs

As someone who spends a lot of time researching animals, I’ve read my share of articles on invasive species and I’ve noticed a certain pattern. In peer-reviewed journals and Cracked top-10 lists alike one word comes up again and again: Florida. I’ve been speculating as much for ages and now scientific research has confirmed that Florida does, in fact, have the worst invasive reptile and amphibian problem on the entire planet.

A recent study published in the journal Zootaxa after almost two decades of critter cataloging came up with a startling total of 137 introduced herpetofauna (a fancy, though also easier to type, word for retiles and amphibians) lurking in Florida’s great outdoors. An additional 3 species were intercepted before they could get too comfortable. Of the 137 outdoor dwelling herpetofauna, 56 are “established”, meaning they’re reproducing and, in many cases, pretty much taking over the place.

How did all these non-native beasties end up in the wild? The study examined animal introduction incidents in the Sunshine State from 1863 through 2010 and found that for the first half of the timeline, invasive species mostly trickled in as accidental stowaways on cargo ships, much like Guam’s infamous brown tree snake. But once the exotic pet trade took off in the latter 20th century, things got a lot messier. Whether the animals got outside through stealth or by owner abandonment – some of these animals prove to be far higher maintenance than their owners anticipated – the pet trade ultimately accounted for 125 (about 84%) of the 137 species described in the study.

Part of the problem is Florida’s laws regarding such pets. While it is illegal in the state to release non-native animals into the wild without a permit, this is obviously not the easiest law to enforce. The authors of the study stress the importance of creating better legislation to prevent further species introduction. Personally, if I were running the show in Florida, I would just go ahead and immediately ban the acquisition of any new exotic pets. It’s just too accommodating of a climate for fugitive herpetofauna. The warm, humid weather, the luxurious tree coverage, the abundant insects… it’s ectotherm paradise. Ironically, some colder states like New York, where delicate exotic pets would freeze to death or get run over by a taxi within an hour of their escape into the world, have stricter laws about animal ownership.

Some of Florida’s more well-publicized invasive herpetofauna include the Burmese python, which grows to an average of 12 feet in length and can strangle prey as large as an alligator, and the Nile monitor – a muscular 6-foot long lizard with alarming sharp teeth and claws, not to mention its formidable swimming, climbing and running abilities. It is lizards that comprise most of the troublesome species plaguing Florida – 43 of 56 established invaders (and the state only has 16 native lizard species). While viewed by many people with less dread than snakes, lizards can be the more destructive of the two reptiles, devouring both plants and animals and compromising manmade structures with their incessant burrowing.
The charming Nile monitor. Image Credit: Chris Eason

The study’s authors begin by noting that, “Introduced species are second in negative effects only to human-mediated effects on native species, habitats, and whole ecosystems.” It’s a reminder that for all the accidental monsters visited upon the native flora and fauna of Florida, the biggest problems are ultimately created by the same invasive species that has caused widespread damage to so many other parts of the world – Homo sapiens.

1 comment:

  1. I have known about this for a while. It does seem that the pythons get the most media attention. However, I might be well more concerned about encountering one of those monitors myself. I also think that the other "Bush" state of Texas needs to keep better tabs of exotic flora and fauna. Actually, this applies to the entire deep south where exotic is tough and cool. Go see Graceland. And how many wrestlers have snakes, tigers, and the like?