A 20-year University of Florida study shows that Florida has the worst invasive species problem in the world. Specifically, invasive reptiles and amphibians have had disastrous ecological impacts in Florida spanning over 100 years.
“Most people in Florida don’t realize when they see an animal if it’s native or non-native and unfortunately, quite a few of them don’t belong here and can cause harm. No other area in the world has a problem like we do, and today’s laws simply cannot be enforced to stop [the] current trend,” said head author Kenneth Krysko. Krysko is also herpetology collection manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.
Since 1863, 137 species of amphibians and reptiles not native to Florida have been introduced to its ecosystem. The university study specifies 56 migrant species, including 43 lizards, 5 snakes, 4 turtles, 3 frogs, and a species of caimen (a genetic cousin of the indigenous alligator).
“The invasion of lizards is pretty drastic considering we only have 16 native species,” said Krysko. “Lizards can cause just as much damage as a python. They are quicker than snakes, can travel far, and are always moving around looking for the next meal.”
The study shows bleak results, indicating 137 introductions with only 3 species intercepted before populating in the wild, and none being eradicated or removed.
Invasive species can cause a variety of damage, including iguanas that can ruin cement walls like those found in Florida residents’ home foundations, or Burmese pythons in the Everglades that eat ecologically threatened species.
“The biggest example is the Burmese python,” Krysko said. “It’s a large constrictor and has definitely shown impact on native species, some you just can’t even find anymore.”
The greenhouse frog was the first documented foreign species, according to the study. A native to the West Indies, the frog made its way to Florida in 1887 via cargo ships from Cuba. Accidental introduction through cargo trading was the primary factor for species introduction until about the 1940s.
Since the 1970s, the great majority of invasive species introduction has been through the keeping of exotic terrarium animals. The release—accidental or otherwise—of these animals is accountable for 84 percent of the current invasive species.
The state of Florida does not permit these releases normally. However, no prosecutions can be made unless offenders are caught in the act, and so far no one has been prosecuted for the release of invasive animals. Hence, researchers urge politicians and policymakers to enact tougher policies before more foreign species are introduced.
“This is a global problem and to think Florida is an exception to the rule is silly,” Krysko said. “The Fish and Wildlife Commission can’t do it alone—they need help and we have to have partners in this with every agency and the general public. Everyone has to be on board; it’s a very serious issue.“It’s like some mad scientist has thrown these species together from all around the world and said, ‘Hey let’s put them all together and see what happens,’” Krysko said. “It could take decades before we actually know the long-term effects these species will have.”