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Exotic Reptiles of Florida

Updated on March 25, 2010

Exotic Reptiles of Florida an Explosive Invasion

Florida is known for its sunshine, warm weather, beautiful beaches and many tourist destinations. It is also becoming well known for its rapidly expanding population of exotic reptiles, that are threatening native species and moving into urban areas where they threaten humans and their pets. There have been media reports for several years concerning frequent encounters between residents of Cape Coral and large Nile Monitor Lizards and more recently, about 20 foot Burmese Pythons being removed from backyards in suburban Miami.

It is thought that many of these exotic reptiles in Florida are the result of negligent or ignorant pet owners releasing their over sized and unmanageable pet monitor lizards and pythons. Others have attributed the growth of exotic reptiles in South Florida to Hurricane Andrew which damaged the huge exotic reptile import holding areas, subsequently releasing many varieties of exotic reptiles into the wild.

What is known is that Nile Monitor Lizards and Burmese Pythons are now breeding in the wild and adapting well to life in Florida. They have also proliferated and moved further north into central Florida. Even more troubling is the fact that venomous exotic species are also turning up in Florida. In the past year a cable television installer was bitten by a highly venomous African Green Mamba, while perched in a tree and installing cable outside of a house in Hollywood Florida. In addition, there are creditable reports of a breeding population of King Cobras in the Everglades as well.

There is now a real threat to native wildlife, humans and pets throughout Florida and beyond. Much as with the incursion of other invasive species into the U.S., such as Africanized aka "killer bees," the expansion of these giant predatory constrictors, lizards and venomous snakes poses serious ecological and public health concerns for the future.

Alligator Dines on Python
Alligator Dines on Python

Living with the Burmese Python

Exotic Snake Makes a Home in Florida

What are the hazards of the Burmese Python to the Florida and U.S. Eco-systems?

As this giant predator establishes a foothold in Florida and rapidly expands its range, what can we expect in a future where the new apex predator is a deadly and prolific constrictor?

Until recently, the American Alligator has been the apex predator in Florida, thanks to legal protections and a resurging population. Legal protection and conservation have also helped the American Salt Water Crocodile make a comeback in some areas of Florida, like the Everglades. These two native crocodilians have traditionally been at the top of the food chain.

Various videos and pictures have documented with increasing frequency, the aftermath of battles between alligators and Burmese Pythons in the Florida Everglades, where the Burmese Python has now established itself. These battles have sometimes favored the alligator and sometimes the python.

The increased population of Burmese Pythons is likely to increase the competition for available food and the predation of native species in Florida. This is bad news for many native animals, since many are already threatened with extinction.

An increased population of these snakes also means they are likely to move out of the Everglades and to seek food in other areas, many of which are populated, such as suburban Miami. Already many of these Burmese Pythons are showing up in backyard situations where they pose a definite threat to children and pets.

Nile Monitor Lizard Capture
Nile Monitor Lizard Capture

Monitor Lizards On The Move

Backyard Jurassic Park

The Nile Monitor Lizard is a durable, adaptable and formidable lizard. Reaching up to 7 feet in length, these reptiles are fast on their feet, awesome swimmers, and proficient climbers. They are capable predators and scavengers and are likely to show-up just about anywhere within their range, from backyard swimming pools to roof tops. They have razor sharp teeth and claws and strong whip-like tails and are more than a match for any other animal in their current habitat, except the alligator and Burmese python.

The Nile Monitor lizard population has exploded in recent years around the Cape Coral area of Southwest Florida and is now expanding into other areas of Florida, from the Keys to Sanibel Island, to Orlando. In spite of attempts to eliminate them through sporadic trapping efforts, it now appears the Nile monitor lizard is here to stay and is bound to continue its expansion within Florida, if not beyond. The Nile monitor is a prolific breeder, with females laying 60 to 80 eggs once or twice a year.

The Nile monitor is a carnivore which thrives on a diet of eggs and is a very proficient hunter. It is a huge threat to Florida's endangered ground owl and gopher tortoise, populations, which are already threatened species and protected by law. Also threatened are the alligator and American crocodile, whose eggs and nests make easy targets. Nile monitors prefer to live along riverbanks and waterways, which puts them in close proximity to crocodillians.

These lizards also commonly prey on pets and small mammals and are a definite threat to cats and small dogs. Known for their ornery dispositions, strength and aggressiveness, monitor lizards should be left alone and avoided by humans, both children and adults. Confrontations and cornering them are apt to bring about loud hissing, and attack with sharp claws, teeth and whipping tail.

Burmese Python up close and personal
Burmese Python up close and personal

Exotic Reptile Species, The Tip of The Iceberg

Exotic Pets or Exotic Pests?

Burmese pythons were first discovered in the Everglades as early as the '70s - probably someone's overgrown pet released. Monitor lizards began showing up in the Cape Coral area in the '80s, again, possibly some released or escaped pets.

Now 20 to 30 years later the Burmese python population is estimated to be over 100,000, with a rapidly expanding habitat and out of control. The Nile monitor lizard population likewise, also out of control, with only feeble efforts being made to trap and contain it.

The initial reports of encounters with these reptiles in Florida now serve as very large "red flags" of a pending environmental disaster. If only people had been aware of the dangers these animals pose to their environment, perhaps something could have been done to stop the threat from spreading.

Unfortunately other "red flags" have been raised in Florida recently. Venomous king cobras encountered in the everglades, cable installer bitten by venomous African green mamba in Hollywood Florida and a huge South American anaconda captured in a central Florida lake. Are these reptiles also escaped exotic pets, or perhaps the harbinger of something more ominous?

Invasive species are nothing new to Florida, with many examples of both flora and fauna to choose from. But other species are not as predatory and directly dangerous to native animals and people. Reptiles also seem to inspire more anxiety and fear.

Invasive mammalian species in Florida such as the Gambian pouch rat (3 feet long) and the virtual explosion of the feral pig population, could provide a food supply for these reptiles, at best.

Who knows what the future holds for the ecology of Florida, not to mention other neighboring States with similar weather and eco-systems. Environmental warming could push these reptiles far beyond the comfortable borders of Florida. What next, pythons in Central Park?

Python radio implant
Python radio implant

What Next - Ignore, Study or Fight Back?

Can Our Eco-System Adapt?

Researchers at many institutions including the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Florida and the University of Tampa continue to monitor and study the effects and growth of invasive species in Florida, including the reptiles of concern. namely the Burmese Python and the Nile monitor lizard.

Many environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy have stepped in with programs such as the "Python Patrol" which seeks to patrol, identify and remove pythons from South Florida, using volunteer spotters and snake handlers.

The Florida State government has responded to the challenge of exotic reptiles by passing legislation requiring a $100 fee for owning an exotic, as well as, requiring computer chip identification of new exotic reptile pets of concern. These are arguably small steps, but definitely in the right direction.

On the national front, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, has sponsored legislation to protect native wildlife and ecosystems with a ban of the further importation into the United States of 9 species of giant constrictors of environmental concern (including the Burmese python).

The alarm has sounded both regionally and nationally, hopefully it is not too late for an effective response.

Although the Burmese python and Nile monitor lizard are thought to rarely pose a direct threat to people, it is seemingly just such an event that has fueled recent legislation, namely the death of a sleeping young child by the family's escaped pet Burmese python.

In another incident in 2001, in Newark, Delaware, a man was discovered in his small apartment, half eaten by his 7 large Nile monitor lizard pets, after failing to show up for work!

It is estimated that 3-4 people in the United States are killed by their pet constrictors each year, either through strangulation or fatal infections caused from bites. These are mild mannered pet snakes, not the more aggressive constrictors found in the wild.

Adult Burmese pythons do occasionally attack and kill humans in their native Asian habitat, although there is little or no evidence that they actually eat people. Nevertheless, a small child or pet could easily be viewed as prey by these giant snakes, sometimes reaching 20 feet in length and weighing 200 pounds.

Clearly the threat to humans is remote, although real and sensational. The threat to the environment is potentially disastrous and much closer at hand. How will we respond?

(picture above, surgical implant of tracking device into an adult Burmese python)

What Do You Think? - Where Do You Stand on This Issue?

We are a society which promotes and defends individual rights and freedoms. We also have a responsibility to protect the environment and public health. How do you respond to the following question?

Individuals should have the right to own exotic reptiles if they choose, without government interference or oversight

See results

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Exotic Reptiles of Florida - Reading Recomendations

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    • OrlandoTipster profile image

      OrlandoTipster 5 years ago

      Would be scary if they started making into populated urban areas

    • MarkHansen profile image

      MarkHansen 5 years ago

      A really insightful and great lens!

    • dahlia369 profile image

      dahlia369 5 years ago

      Interesting topic, nice lens! :)

    • profile image

      CanAnybodySing 6 years ago

      This sounds like something from the movies, can't believe its real. Great lens!

    • debnet profile image

      Debbie 6 years ago from England

      Thank goodness I didn't see any of these on my recent trip! Blessed by a squid Angel ;)

    • MamaBelle profile image

      Francis Luxford 6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Nice read, I love reptiles!

    • redflea13 lm profile image

      redflea13 lm 6 years ago

      I can see the need for regulation but it has come a little late. The number of invasive species is daunting and there is really know feasible way of getting rid of them. In Florida alone there are invasive plants,fish,mammals,reptiles,amphibians and invertebrates. The habitat in the everglades is perfect for many species to thrive. Some regulation may help but it should only prevent the people ill equipped to care for such animals and not hinder those responsible exotic animal keepers.

    • profile image

      WingedWolfPsion 7 years ago

      Remember--adding Burmese pythons and other constrictors to the Lacey Act will prevent owners from taking their pets with them when they move--and thus INCREASES the risk that animals will be released! No one wants to euthanize a beloved pet--if owners cannot find homes for such special needs animals on short notice, what will they do? This is a BAD PROPOSAL. Don't let it pass!

    • profile image

      WingedWolfPsion 7 years ago

      Last chance to help save the reptile industry, and allow people to take their beloved pets with them when they move across State lines! Go to http://www.Kill-RuleChange.com and follow the instructions!

    • profile image

      Light-in-me 7 years ago

      Hello, I live in Florida and have heard all the stories in the news and I think it needs to be dealt with. This is a great lens interesting and informative, you did a wonderful job.

      Thanks for sharing,

      Robin

    • WildFacesGallery profile image

      Mona 7 years ago from Iowa

      I recently watched a show about this topic on animal planet or discovery. It's shocking how out of hand it's gotten. If people wait too long to take action things are going to get worse and then be harder to correct. Excellent lens. 5*

    • profile image

      inkserotica 7 years ago

      Just a quick note from a Squidoo Greeter! A very fascinating subject and scary, too! 5*

    • GonnaFly profile image

      Jeanette 7 years ago from Australia

      Wow. What an eye-opener. Here in Sydney, Australia, we have to have a licence to own a reptile too.