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Big Shadow Of Invasive Species In Sunshine State

Florida has worst invasive species problem in world

By: Mike Suchan,

The tale of toilet-flushed alligators living in New York sewers has been debunked as an urban legend, but Florida has experienced an invasion of monsters big and small, and most have come via the pet industry.

From Burmese pythons to the latest, Giant African land snails, the Sunshine State has the worst invasive species problem in the world, a 20-year study by the University of Florida recently claimed. The study shows that invasive animals, specifically reptiles and amphibians, have had disastrous ecological impacts in Florida for more than 100 years.

Burmese Python. Photograph by DEP biologist, Collier-Seminole State Park

“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,” head author of the study Kenneth Krysko told The Epoch Times.

The Florida Invasive Species Partnership lists 361 records of such invasive species, from the Africanized bee to the Zebra mussel. Some of the species were introduced accidentally in cargo, but a number were released from home terrariums after pet owners found they could no longer handle them, and some were even freed from pet shops by hurricane damage.

The problem with Burmese pythons, which can grow upward of 20 feet, came to a head when a 2-year-old was strangled to death by a 9-foot snake kept illegally in her Oxford home in 2009. The Legislature passed a law banning individuals from owning the large snakes and six other large, exotic reptile species. Those who already owned one now have to pay $100 annual permits, embed them with a tracking microchip and prove they have proper handling skills.

With estimates of 150,000 pythons in the Everglades eating rare bird and other wildlife, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission opened a hunting season in 2010. Anyone with a hunting license could purchase a $26 permit fee to go after most pythons, green anacondas and Nile monitor lizards.

"If we don't get on top of this, they're going to eradicate the indigenous species of the Everglades," said Rodney Barreto, FFWC Commission chairman.

Krysko, the herpetology collection manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, said since 1863, 137 species of amphibians and reptiles not native to Florida have been introduced to its ecosystem. An influx of iguanas have befuddled South Florida residents, eating their landscape plants, but the Nile monitor lizards are one species of special concern.

“The invasion of lizards is pretty drastic considering we only have 16 native species,” Krysko said. “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 that of the 137 introductions, only 3 species were intercepted before populating in the wild, and none have been eradicated or totally removed. Invasive species can cause a variety of damage, including iguanas that can ruin cement walls like those found in Florida residents’ home foundations.

Giant African Land Snail. Photo courtesy of Andrew Derksen, Florida Cooperative Agriculture Pest

“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.’ It could take decades before we actually know the long-term effects these species will have.”

The newest threat to Florida is the Giant African land snails, which destroy vegetation, eat stucco off houses and can carry a parasitic nematode that can lead to meningitis in humans. The largest have shells and can grow to near 10 inches, live for several years and lay 1,200 eggs a year. They have been found recently around Miami.

Like most of the non-native animals, researchers say the pet store trade is responsible for the snail invasion. The snails are illegal to own or import without a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Anyone who believes they may have seen a Giant African land snail or signs of its presence should call the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services toll-free at 888-397-1517 to make arrangements to have the snail collected.

To preserve the snail sample, Floridians should use gloves to put the snail in a zip lock bag, seal it and place it in a bucket or plastic container.

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