Creepy Creatures of the Florida Keys
What you won't find in the tourist guide books!
If you’ve been planning a trip to the Florida Keys, you’ve probably seen a lot of promotional material put out by the various tourist industries. You may be excited about catching amazing fish or scuba diving or snorkeling to see lots of gorgeous underwater life. Perhaps it’s the unique Key Deer you can’t wait to see down in the Lower Keys. I’m sure that Duval Street and Margaritaville in Key West is calling your name as well.
When I moved to Islamorada nearly 15 years ago, I looked forward to all of these things too. But there are a few things I found myself living with that the guide books rarely mention. This is not to discourage you from visiting or moving here. Some of you may even be fascinated with our creepy creatures. I think they are rather unique and, as long as you understand and respect them, there is no reason we can’t all live together peacefully.
So take a journey with me to the darker side of the Florida Keys!
One of the first unusual creatures that you will no doubt encounter is the huge iguana population that has taken over the Keys. When I first moved here, you would only see one once in a while and typically only on Plantation Key. In the following years, the iguanas have thrived and they have migrated all over the Keys. You will often see them walking along the road and, sadly, sometimes in the road as roadkill. Iguanas are not native to the Keys so there is much debate about their presence here. Whether you love them or hate them, they have become so numerous that it is generally agreed that they would be difficult if not impossible to eradicate.
Our iguanas will not hurt you as long as you leave them be. Typically, they will run if you try to approach. They are vegetarians and they do tend to annoy many homeowners with their taste for our hisbiscus flowers. They are also great climbers and you will see them camouflaging themselves among the branches of the mangroves lining our waterways. The picture at right was taken on my second floor veranda – this particular iguana lived there for a full season one year.
Scorpions glow under UV light
One of the creepier creatures you may encounter is one of several varieties of scorpions. And yes, scorpions can and will sting you but the sting is similar to a bee sting and not deadly like western scorpions can be. Some homes and properties in the Keys seem more prone to scorpions than others. I had a terrible problem with them in the building I leased for a retail store but I have rarely encountered them in my home. A great way to locate them is to use a black light at night as they will glow under ultraviolet light (see photo right). Don’t make the mistake many people do the first time they encounter a scorpion. When you see them, they are often not moving and may appear dead. Most of the time, they are very much alive and can move fairly quickly once disturbed. Be ready to attack using a good whack with something solid!
If you're still worried about the stinger, you can always use a method of friend of mine employs in her retail store. She keeps a pair of long handled garden clippers and snips off the tail before whacking the rest of the scorpion. Gross but it works for her!
Scorpions like to hide outside under boards, rubbish, or other areas that provide shelter and protection. They are active at night, and do their share to reduce pests in and around the home. One of their favorite meals is our next creepy creature – the Florida cockroach or palmetto bug.
Oh yeah, these. Palmetto bug is just a polite way of saying cockroach. And we grow giant ones in the Florida Keys. What’s worse is they not only can fly, they also bite! It will be highly unusual if you do not see at least one during your visit. I only hope your encounter is not too up close and personal. I sometimes read traveler reviews of hotels/motels here and read shocked reports of palmetto bugs in the rooms. Well, I hate to say it but you are lucky if you DON’T have one in your room at some point during your stay.
One amusing incident happened to me shortly after I moved here. A friend had set me up on a blind date with a really great guy. We were having cocktails watching the sunset at a beach bar and enjoying great conversation. Suddenly my new friend started madly waving his arms in the general vicinity of my left breast! Needless to say I was rather stunned but something made me look down only to discover a huge cockroach had landed on, yep, you guessed it - my left breast! The poor guy didn't quite know how to deal with that situation on a first date.
Palmetto bugs are reddish brown and grow up to two inches in length. It is also known as the American cockroach. It has a pair of large wings on its back that can be used for flying, but wings that are tough enough to act like a shield when the cockroach is on the ground. Palmetto bugs need moisture to survive and only live in warm, tropical climates.
This young croc is my neighbor!
American Saltwater Crocodile
I’d heard of these things when I moved here but fifteen years ago sightings were very rare. In the 1970’s, there were less than 200 in the upper Florida Keys. But since these creatures were classified as an endangered species, their numbers are on the rise here in the Keys. Recently, estimates are over 2000 in all of the Keys. I got to see this first hand not long ago when I was walking by the lagoon next to my own house in Islamorada and found a new neighbor had moved into a dinghy (picture right). Shocked, the neighbors gathered to take pictures and discuss the situation. I was elected to call the officials and see if we couldn’t have this little guy removed to a better location.
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I was in for an education. I was eventually put in touch with the Florida crocodile expert who told me they would not remove the creature and explained the facts of crocodile life to me and then sent me literature on living with crocodiles. Relocation presents a number of problems so they only attempt it in extreme cases. Crocodiles are very territorial and will apparently move heaven and earth to return to the place they were taken from. This often means fighting with other crocodiles and facing various other hazards along the way. If they survive, they just end up right back where they started from. The expert told me that most neighborhoods simply learn to co-exist with their crocs. The photo at right is an example of a large female who claimed a Key Largo homeowner's raised flower bed as a nesting site.
In brief, here is what I learned in case you should encounter one of these while you’re in the Keys. There are obviously more precautions if you choose to live here but we’ll just stick with visitor basics for this article.
- How to tell the difference between a crocodile and an alligator: Alligators are black in color and the croc is a grayish green. The easiest identifier is the teeth. When the mouth is closed, the crocodile will show the fourth tooth on the lower jaw. The alligator will only have upper teeth exposed. Alligators are rarely found in the Keys.
- NEVER feed a crocodile. Not only is it illegal but, in doing so, you are encouraging the crocodile to lose its natural fear of humans and instead, associate humans with food! Also, never throw fish scraps in the water because you are actually doing the same thing. Dispose of fish scraps in covered garbage cans instead.
Do NOT allow pets to swim in near shore waters in the Florida Keys. Pets are often sized appropriately to become crocodile prey. Dogs, in particular, are far more likely to be attacked by a crocodile
Do NOT allow small children to swim in near shore waters for the same reason as 3.
Do not allow pets or small children to play within 5 feet of the water’s edge.
- If you must swim, do so only during daylight hours. Crocodiles tend to hunt between dusk and dawn.
To date, there have been no deaths due to crocodiles in the Keys. My personal feeling is that with the increasing number of crocodiles and the fact that tourists tend to leave their brains at home, it is only a matter of time before this statistic changes.
For further information, please read A Guide to Living with Crocodiles published by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Video of a large crocodile in feeding in Key Largo
How not to treat a crocodile?
One gets the impression in the above video that this crocodile has possibly been fed the trout by the people watching him. Crocodiles often learn to hang out in marinas where fish scraps are constantly being thrown into the water and uneducated tourists who feed them. They are smart animals. This practice is extremely dangerous as the crocodile loses their natural fear of people and may be far more likely to attack a person as a result. DO note one thing at the end of this video. After the croc submerges itself, you can no longer see him. Think about that the next time you choose to swim in the nearshore waters of the Keys.