The Alligator Attraction Wildlife Learning Center strives to educate the public about the importance of Florida’s natural history and ways in which we can coexist with the rich diversity of the state’s wildlife. One topic of particular importance to the Center is the widespread presence of invasive species found throughout Florida. Wildlife plays an important role in the health and balance of the state’s environment. Endangered species here live in danger of becoming extinct because of low or falling populations, or because they are threatened by environmental stress, including invasive species.
Florida’s tropical climate has been attracting more than people for hundreds of years. The state is known to have more than 500 non-native plant and animal species, many of which were innocently acquired for personal use as pets and then escaped or were released into the wild. Here are five of Florida’s top non-native species. As tempting as they may look in a store window, by refusing to purchase these creatures as pets, you’ll be doing your part to protect the state’s indigenous plants and animals.
- Burmese Pythons
One of the top threats to the animals that call the Everglades home is the Burmese Python. Pythons, which are native to Southeast Asia, became popular pets in Miami during the height of the exotic animal trade in the 1980s. The snakes, which can grow to lengths of 20 feet, are thought to have established a significant population in the Florida Everglades after a breeding facility was damaged in Hurricane Andrew in 1992, inciting the release of countless Pythons into nearby swamps and ultimately the Florida Everglades. It is also theorized that many people who kept them as pets released them into the wild when they grew too big. Unfortunately, the area’s warm, wet conditions are ideal for the snakes and today it is estimated that there are tens of thousands of the reptiles living in the state’s iconic ecosystem. Pythons have been found to eat every known mammal living in the Everglades and have even been documented trying to devour alligators. Pythons have no known predator in that environment and they breed quickly, adding to what is an already devastating impact on that ecosystem.
Popular in the exotic pet market as they are considered low maintenance reptiles, iguanas have become a huge nuisance in Florida. Their feces can harbor dangerous salmonella bacteria and they are known to feast on certain native plants and bird eggs. In addition, the burrowing lizards are also infamous for shorting out power lines and damaging drainage canals. Iguanas are prevalent from Central Florida to South Florida where they have come to be fearless of people and are often found sunning on area residents’ decks and patios.
Outdoor cats and colonies of feral cats can be fatal to Florida’s native wild bird species. A free roaming domestic cat can kill up to 100 birds a year, according to the Florida Wildlife Commission. And the numbers only increase when it comes to feral cats. Cats also carry a parasite called toxoplasmosis that can kill manatees and other mammals. It is advised to keep your domestic cats as indoor-only pets and to avoid feeding feral cats as well as groups of wild cats, which only grow larger when a consistent food source is provided.
The worst marine invasion to date is that of the venomous Lionfish. These are tropical predatory fish from the Indo Pacific region that were introduced to Florida waters after an aquarium release in the 1980s. Today, their numbers are staggering and their effect is widespread. Lionfish compete for food with native predatory fish such as grouper and snapper and may negatively impact reef habitats by eliminating organisms such as herbivorous fish that serve important ecological roles like keeping alga in check. Lionfish consume more than 90 different species of native fish and invertebrates. There are several ways you can help: Don’t buy them as an aquarium showpiece; purchase them to eat if you see them in your grocery store or on the menu at your favorite seafood restaurant; participate in any of the numerous “Lionfish Roundups” held throughout the state, when scuba divers earn cash and prizes for capturing and bringing in the largest and most amount of these tenacious predators.
- Tegu Lizards
These non-native reptiles can grow up to four to five feet long and love to eat alligator, bird and turtle eggs as well as small lizards and rodents. The widespread presence of Tegu lizards in Florida is credited initially to escaped pets and irresponsible pet owners releasing them into the wild, where they now easily multiply on their own. Primarily active during the day, Tegus spend most of their time on land but can swim and submerge themselves for extended periods of time. If you see one, take a picture of it, note the location, and report your sighting to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission by phone at 888-IVE-GOT1 or online at IveGot1.org.
At the Alligator Attraction Wildlife Learning Center, our goal is to educate visitors about the abundant reptile and aquatic wildlife found in Florida to ensure their survival for future generations. You can do your part by refraining from purchasing the above species or by being a responsible pet owner if you already own one. If you find you can no longer properly care for it, look to facilities such as the Alligator Attraction for help before doing the unthinkable and releasing them into the wild. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission will also intake exotic pets, even illegal ones, if you can no longer care for them. Just call its Exotic Species Hotline at 888-IVE-Got1 (483-4681) for help. Note that as of July 1, both Green Iguanas and Tegu lizards are banned from sale, import, breeding and ownership in Florida. Complying with this new law will also help reduce the number of these two invasive species and the stronghold they have on native Florida wildlife.