These are the invasive species to be wary of in Florida.
The state of Florida has become something of a hotbed for invasive species over the last 30 years. Unfortunately, a plethora of invasive plants and animals, despite being non-native, have found the warm climate much to their liking. These invasive animals have not only survived, but thrived, causing a whole host of issues that threaten both human health and native species of the Sunshine State.
Which is why we are doing a comprehensive roundup of the high-risk nonnative species to watch out for in your wilderness adventures in the state's many beautiful natural areas. If spotted, sightings of these pests should be made to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Because it takes a lot of work to protect Florida's precious natural resources and wildlife officials can use all the help they can get. There are a few too many invasive species to list in one article, so we're just going to give an overview of the most problematic invasive species currently wreaking havoc in Florida.
There are at least three variants of this exotic species that have found Florida quite to their liking. Mexican spiny-tailed iguanas, and black spiny tailed iguanas both have a foothold, but it is the common green iguana that has made itself at home in many neighborhoods around the Atlantic coastal regions. These lizards grow huge, upwards of six feet in length. They can also multiply quickly with females laying upwards of 70 eggs a year. They are most common in Miami-Dade, Monroe, Martin, Palm Beach, and Broward counties.
It's believed most iguanas are either escapees or released animals from the exotic pet trade. They first started to establish a foothold in the 1960s. However, the invasion has become more obvious in the last five years as they take over neighborhoods. There are now bans on their importation, but it may be too little too late to stop a breeding population. They are pests to humans because their burrows are extremely destructive and can undermine the stability of homes. As if that was not enough, they are also a threat to pass Salmonella to humans. FWC has responded by putting extremely loose regulations on the big lizards. Many airgun enthusiasts have responded by making iguana shooting with pellet rifles a popular pastime in areas where their numbers are great.
This one makes many a Floridian shiver at the thoughts of one of these giant constrictors slithering through their neighborhood. Wildlife officials believe this native of Asia was first introduced to the ecosystem sometime in the 1980s. The early invaders were released by pet owners. In 1992, the problem compounded in the wake of hurricane Andrew because one of the buildings destroyed was a python breeding facility. Obviously, many of the snakes were never rounded up and found the Everglades much to their liking.
This animal species is bad news for native wildlife. The big snakes can grow to lengths over 20 feet and have really taken a liking to snacking on native raccoons, opossums, foxes, deer, and even alligators. Because the females can lay upwards of 100 eggs a year, controlling them is not going to be easy. The snakes have no natural predators. Which is why the FWC has set up a dedicated elimination program that pays hunters for rapid response whenever one is reported. There are now full-time python hunters operating in some parts of south Florida battling the problem.
There are many different species of amphibians like the Cuban tree frog, Mexican leaf frog, the West African rubber frog, and more that are problematic in Florida. However, the cane toad is one that Florida officials are really worried about. These huge toads are native to South and Central America. They were first introduced back in the 1930s and 40s to control pests in and around farmer's fields. That ended up being a huge mistake as the critters quickly began competing with native toads and frogs both for habitat and food.
Worse, these toads are highly toxic, posing a huge threat to pets or small children who may try to handle them. Their skin secretes a dangerous toxin that can harm you just from handling it. These toads look much like native toads which can cause problems with identification when they are younger. Fortunately, the adult toads are six to nine inches in length, which makes them stand out from the smaller native ones. The FWC also says to watch for two crests across the back that go between the eyes of the toad. This indicates a harmless native one. The big cane toads are not protected and can be killed or removed by anyone. Although the FWC recommends wearing rubber gloves to protect your skin from the toxic secretions this amphibian produces.
The lionfish is native to the Red Sea and Indo-Pacific regions on the other side of the globe, but they started turning up in the Atlantic sometime back in the 1980s. They have a full foothold throughout the Gulf of Mexico and down to South America now. FWC is uncertain exactly how they got here, however, they cannot rule out released exotic pets as a possibility. Lionfish are extremely popular in the aquarium trade.
Unfortunately, these beautiful fish are reef predators that made themselves at home on many of Florida's reefs where they have been wreaking havoc on native fish populations. Both through competing with native fish and because they have devastated other species that are healthy for the reefs. Each female lionfish can lay 15,000 eggs a year, which has helped the population explode.
These fish are unprotected and FWC asks any anglers who catch one to kill them. They have become a popular target for spear fishermen and women for that reason. While they have no predators here, some divers have been working to try and teach native sharks, barracuda, and other predators to feed on them. It's too soon to tell if those efforts will have an effect, but it's worth the try.
Gambian Pouched Rat
We know Florida is full of rodents, so you might be thinking: "What's one more?" Well, the Gambian pouched rat is the largest in the world. Native to Africa, they can grow more than 30 inches in length and weigh upwards of 3-4 pounds, sometimes even more. These rats were popular in the pet trade. The current population in Florida stems from just eight rats escaping a breeding facility in 2004. Thankfully, they are isolated to the island of Grassy Key for now. The FWC closely monitors their population because they do not want them getting off the island.
If they were to escape, it's likely they would spread quickly because like most rodents, they reproduce multiple times a year. It's not uncommon for a female to give birth up to five times in a year.
Aside from being gigantic and disgusting, they carry many types of disease. The CDC believes this species may have been responsible for an outbreak of monkeypox in the Midwest back in 2003. Pouched rats eat native insects, plants, land snails, fruit, and more. They also like munching on bird eggs, which puts many endangered species at risk. Some hunters have taken up shooting these rats with high power air rifles and night scopes, but it's hard to put a dent in the population on Grassy Key because of how quickly they reproduce.
There are two different species of freshwater snakehead currently in Florida as recognized by the FWC. There is the northern snakehead and the bullseye snakehead. Originally native to Asia and Africa, these fish have proven an extreme challenge for invasive species management programs because of how quickly they spread. These fish have become such a problem, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made their importation anywhere in the U.S. illegal without a permit.
While these fish provide a great fight for anglers, they gobble up native fish, crayfish, and other aquatic species while pushing many native predatory fish out of the area. Another problem is in their appearance. They are similar in appearance to native fish like the bowfin, sometimes causing unintended killings of native fish by confused anglers.
For now, these fish are mostly isolated to south Florida. No one seems quite sure how they got here, but they have a well-established foothold now. Anglers regularly catch specimens of 10 pounds or more those parts of the state. The FWC has responded by encouraging anglers to catch as many as they want. If caught, they should be immediately killed and should never be thrown back. While rod and reel has proven popular for targeting them, they are also a popular target of bowfishing enthusiasts.
A relative newcomer as far as invasive species, the FWC has documented breeding populations of Argentine black and white tegus in St. Lucie, Charlotte, and Miami-Dade counties. Popular in the pet trade, they were quickly put on a prohibited species list for the state. Owning, breeding, or selling these reptiles is now completely banned.
These lizards grow to lengths of three feet or more and a female can lay as many as 30 eggs a season. They are also a long-lived species, regularly reaching 20 years or more in the wild, helping to compound the problem and put an extra emphasis on early detection strategies in counties that do not have tegus.
The tegu is a notorious egg eater and has been documented eating alligator eggs on a regular basis. However, there are plenty of ground nesting birds, endangered turtles and tortoises that are potentially in danger because of these reptiles. Because of the dangers to native wildlife, residents can kill as many as they want without any license, even on public land.
Next to Texas, Florida may have the second worst feral hog problem in North America. Feral swine have become thoroughly established in every county in Florida and the sounders are capable of hundreds of thousands of dollars of destruction a year to human agriculture, lawns, and landscaping. These mammals are true eating machines, chowing down on just about anything in their path. In addition to chowing down on native plant species, they will also eat things like turkey eggs, or even fawns if they can catch them. At least they will also sometimes eat non-native plants too.
Sadly, no one alive today can remember a time when feral hogs weren't causing issues for Florida. The FWC believes they were first introduced to the state back in the 1500s when some of the first European explorers landed in Florida. Feral hogs reproduce quickly, with a sow often giving birth to multiple litters a year. At this point, eradication of wild hogs is likely impossible in Florida. The only thing to do is control them.
Like Texas, Florida's laws on the hunting of feral hogs are extremely loose. There are no bag limits, you can hunt them 24 hours a day, seven days a week except in certain wildlife management areas. There are no permits or hunting license required. Just landowner permission if on private land. You can trap them, shoot them, or even hunt them with dogs. Every hog taken helps.
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