Invasive exotic animals, reptiles, and fish of Florida
Introduction: There are two major reasons explaining the explosion of exotic critters to south Florida in particular and Florida in general. First, Miami sees considerable traffic in the movement and exchange of exotic fauna, also known as the pet trade, and secondly these animals, fish, and reptiles are intentionally released by irresponsible owners, or unintentionally, by hurricane-inflicted damage to animal shelters and warehouses causing the four-legged and finned species to often escape. While some critters such as the green iguanas are nothing more than a nuisance others like the Burmese python present a huge danger to other species both endangered and not because they are predators at the top of the food chain that aggressively compete for food. Burmese pythons also eat other predators and are multiplying, breeding, and expanding at an alarming rate in south Florida. Below are just a few of the most notorious, or surprising, examples and not included are the abundance of invasive non-native plants in Florida. Older invasive denizens common in Florida, which can hardly be considered exotic today, include the wild boar or feral pig, the feral cat, and black rat, introduced hundreds of years ago by European settlers.
Burmese python. The Burmese python is clearly the poster child of Florida’s problem with invasive species and some estimates claim there could be well over 10,000 by now. They have also started to breed in the Everglades and their feeding habits are not only alarming but horrifying because they can attack and eat juvenile alligators, deer, bobcats, large birds, and potentially humans. What’s worse is that the Everglades are home to a number of endangered species which are now threatened by these huge voracious snakes. They have no known predators as they are at the top of the food chain. While an adult alligator can easily take out a mature Burmese python in a duel, the Burmese pythons are competing for food with alligators and eat the alligator’s young. Additionally, pythons do not require water to thrive as do alligators. Many of the pythons ended up in the Florida Everglades by owners who dumped the animals after they got too big to take care of. These snakes can easily weigh in at 200 pounds by the time they are two years old. The Everglades are a perfect environment for these large snakes as they are expert swimmers and the thick underbrush provides great cover for ambush and breeding and they can easily grow to over fifteen feet. They are believed to have been introduced to the area in 1979 by careless owners who acquired them through the pet trade.
Nile monitor. After the Burmese python the Nile monitor is probably the next most threatening animal. It too is an expert swimmer, climber, and hunter with a voracious appetite and very fast on its feet. Imported from Africa by way of the pet trade and first introduced around 1990 the Nile monitor can grow to six feet long. One of their favorite meals is eggs which are laid by alligators, crocodiles, and diamondback terrapins. The American crocodile, an endangered species of the Everglades, is especially at risk, because it is more passive than its cousin that inhabits the same region, the American Alligator, and the Nile monitor can easily wipe out a nest of crocodile eggs. The Nile monitor also stalks fish ponds in backyards and any other small specie including house pets.
Green iguana. The Green iguana came to Florida from Central America in the 1960s by way of the pet trade. While seemingly harmless they are destructive herbivores that cause damage and erosion by burrowing and eating vegetation. They breed quickly and are messy leaving waste everywhere including residential areas. They are also known to damage homes by knocking of roof shingles. They live close to water and can often be seen adjacent to canals where they can expertly escape any perceived threat by swimming.
Lionfish. It was thought that the Lionfish first inhabited the waters of south Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They are endemic to the Indian and western Pacific Ocean but now they are a relatively common denizen in the waters of Biscayne Bay and expanding in range. Their sharp pointed spikes are poisonous and have been fatal to humans in a few cases. They are predators which feed on small fish, mollusks, and invertebrates. Of course the danger to scuba divers, swimmers, and snorkelers is obvious.
Rhesus monkey. Released in Marion County more than 70 years ago, the rhesus monkey, or macaque, colony thrives in north central Florida in the Silver River region and some have been spotted as far away as Orlando and the Daytona area. The biggest threat the rhesus monkey presents is disease which can be spread to humans. Otherwise they are another competitor in the food chain and threaten native species such as birds because they are expert tree climbers and egg thieves.
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