Unwanted Animal Visitors in the Sunshine State
Man-eating Nile crocodiles are the latest in a long list of invasive species calling Florida home.
With its tropical weather, miles of shoreline and freshwater wetlands, Florida is home to all sorts of exotic animal species. Unfortunately, not all of the Sunshine State's residents are considerate neighbors. Many, in fact, don't belong in the state at all.
Despite efforts to restrict the sudden appearance of uninvited guests by customs authorities, new animal arrivals continue to surprise wildlife experts. Last week, University of Florida researchers confirmed through DNA analysis the capture of multiple Nile crocodiles in South Florida.
The crocs are known for tackling large game in their native Africa, including zebras and small hippos. Thanks to the abundance of food options in Florida, the juveniles captured by the University of Florida team appeared to be growing 28 percent faster than their wild counterparts in their native range. The reptiles also don't shy away from humans, and were responsible at least 480 attacks on people and 123 fatalities in Africa between 2010 and 2014.
Although non-native animals can be found throughout the peninsula, South Florida in particular, home to the Port of Miami and Everglades National Park, has an abundance of invasive animals. An estimated 26 percent of the all species in South Florida are non-native, the most of any region in the country. In this slideshow, take a look at some of the animals who, despite thriving in Florida, find themselves a long way from home.
Fossil of Massive Crocodile Found on Edge of Sahara Desert
Photo credit: USGS
When Nile crocodiles arrived in Florida, they found a familiar face in the Nile monitor, a large reptile that had been in the state since the 1990s. Hundreds of Nile monitor sightings have been reported since the first lizards either escaped their owners or were released into the wild.
Unfortunately for local wildlife and pets alike, the five-foot-long speckled lizards aren't picky eaters. "Bugs, frogs, smaller lizards, turtles, birds, rodents, baby alligators, endangered gopher tortoises, endangered burrowing owls, the eggs and offspring of any of these animals, feral cats, domestic cats, possibly even the family dog, road kill, whatever," the Tampa Bay Times reports.
Like many privileged Florida homeowners, Nile monitors are drawn to the waterfront. According to The Atlantic, three permanent populations are established in the state, the largest of which has more than 1,000 individuals.
The name "Burmese python" packs so much meaning into two simple words. "Burmese" indicates the country Burma, also known as Myanmar, also known as "not from around here" if you're a Floridian. The snake is of course native to southeast Asia. The word "python" tells you it's an animal you don't want in your backyard.
And yet, that's exactly where the Burmese python now finds itself after being introduced to the Sunshine State in the 1980s. More than 2,000 of these pythons have been removed from Everglades National Park since 2002, according to the National Parks Service.
The animals create such an ecological imbalance, devastating local wildlife populations, that for years the state has offered bounties for dead snakes and hosted annual challenges, inviting hunters to kill as many of the Burmese pythons as possible.
Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Green anacondas are the heaviest and one of the longest snakes in the world. Although they were perfectly happy in their native South America, some overconfident snake enthusiasts thought it would be a good idea to keep these massive, albeit non-venomous predators as pets. Unlike a snake, which can unhinge its jaw, these pet owners bit off more than they could chew.
Now the snakes can be found in the Everglades and other parts of South Florida, preying aggressively on local wildlife. Given its size, which can reach up to 29 feet (8.8 meters) in length and more than 550 pounds (227 kilograms) in weight, the green anaconda can make even the largest predator its prey, and that includes alligators.
Photo credit: USGS
The common myna (Acridotheres tristis) is just one of many species of bird brought to Florida as a result of the pet trade. Native to southeast Asia, the bird first arrived in Florida in the 1980s and is currently found in approximately 14 different counties.
The common myna nests in communal groups, competing for resources with native birds. In fact, they often attack species, such as Purple Martins, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission notes. The unwelcome visitors also tear into crops and orchards, and serve as carriers for avian malaria, a parasitic disease that's devastating to species who lack evolutionary resistance.
Nearly 200 nonnative bird species have occupied Florida at one point or another, many of them responsible for the same kind of environmental and agricultural damage caused by the common myna.
Photo credit: Thinkstock/iStock
The wild pig (Sus scrofa) isn't exactly a recent arrival, first brought over by Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto as early as 1539. Since its introduction, wild pigs have spread to all 67 of Florida's counties, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, preferring "oak-cabbage palm hammocks, freshwater marshes and sloughs and pine flatwoods."
An omnivore known for its all-consuming appetite isn't going to be a welcome arrival in any neighborhood. Wild pigs, which can reach up to 150 pounds (68 kilograms) and grow to 6 feet (1.8 meters) in length, can tear through backyards, golf courses, farms and more, rooting through the dirt with the snouts looking for food.
Naturally, given that pigs were brought over here as livestock, hunters can't get enough of the wild pigs, which is second only to the white-tailed deer as the most-targeted animal. With an estimated 1 million pigs in Florida, more than any other state per square mile, it's no surprise that there is no season, no limits, no license or other requirements when hunting the animals on private property, provided permission from the landowner.
One Charlotte County rancher even took advantage of the porkers pigging out on his land to bring area restaurants a "naturally raised," "free-range," "sustainable" and "local" food source, reports the Tampa Bay Times.
No one is going to roll out the welcome mat for a cockroach, particularly one that hisses.
The Madagascar hissing cockroach, native to the African island as the name implies, found its way into the Sunshine State thanks to humans who figured the two- to three-inch long arthropod were well-suited to be lizard food.
Although not particularly ecologically harmful -- in fact, they can be beneficial scavengers -- the bugs breed like, well, cockroaches, and can be an unsightly nuisance to Florida homeowners.
First introduced to Florida in the 1960s, iguanas have been expanding their foothold in the Sunshine State ever since, often around the periphery of urban areas or small town.
Though the reptiles are ravenous eaters that can grow to more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) long, they aren't a threat to native lizards. Though popular as pets with Floridians, iguanas aren't exactly man's best friend, as noted by the University of Florida:
"Damage caused by iguanas includes eating valuable landscape plants, shrubs, and trees, eating orchids and many other flowers, eating dooryard fruit like berries, figs, mangos, tomatoes, bananas, lychees, etc. ... Droppings of iguanas litter areas where they bask. This is unsightly, causes odor complaints, and is a possible source of salmonella bacteria, a common cause of food poisoning."
Fully grown iguanas can bite, scratch with the sharp claws and whip potential threats with their tails. Although usually docile and avoidant of humans, they will defend themselves against people and pets when they're cornered.
Commonly found in the aquarium trade, oscars (Astronotus ocellatus) are often a colorful household pet. They tend to overstay their welcomes quickly, however, growing too large and feeding on other fish. When aquarium owners finally give up, as so many have since at least the late 1950s, oscars are returned to the wild. In fact, oscars are so popular, they have been found throughout the United States, even as far as Hawaii. The fish in this photo was found in Nebraska, for example.
A wild habitat isn't the same a native one, however. The oscar instead originate from South America, found around the Orinoco and Amazon basins, French Guyana and northern Paraguay, according to USGS. But the fish don't mind the surroundings, feeding on small fish, insects and crustaceans of the Everglades or other large freshwater areas.
Anglers don't mind the oscars either. The hard-fighting fish ranks second in popularity only to large-mouth bass, notes the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. The oscar's meat is white and flaky, but eating too much isn't recommended because of mercury contamination.
Native fish do likely take exception to the oscars' presence, however. The oscars prey on some species, and compete for food and spawning areas with others.
Oscars aren't the only non-native species that made their way from aquaria to the wild. Other examples include lionfish, the Mayan cichlid and the walking catfish, all of which are a serious detriment local plant and animal species.
Armadillos are so common in the Sunshine State that you'd think they've been there all along. First brought to Florida in the 1920s and 1930s, the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) spread through most of the state by the 1950s.
A minor nuisance to humans, armadillos dig in order to feed on plants, insects and other small animals, and in the process often damage lawns, sports fields, golf courses, orange groves and more, according to the University of Florida. At times, their digging can cause structural instability when they burrow in and around buildings.
Armadillos also carry the bacteria that causes leprosy, and they're the only animal that carries that grim distinction. Although the bacteria have been found in armadillo populations in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, no infections have yet been detected among the marsupials in Florida. The method of transmission of leprosy from armadillos to humans is not well understood, and no case of a human contracting leprosy from an armadillo have been reported.
To quails and turtles, armadillos are a bigger problems. The small marsupials, which can grow up to 17 inches (43 centimeters) in length, have a fondness for bobwhite quail and sea turtle eggs to the point where the armadillos' appetites have reduced the population of both Florida natives.