Burmese pythons, and other invasive animals, are devouring competition in Florida
Florida has captured more than 17,000 Burmese pythons since 2000, but tens of thousands likely roam the Florida Everglades. This is a concern because the reptiles, which are not native to the area, are gripping the competition.
“[Pythons] It can take out one of the apex predators, which are alligators and crocodiles, and then you’ll take out some of the other native animals that are small mammals — some rats, rats, marsh rabbits — things that presumably say Mike Hillman, director of Gatorland Park, an amusement park. And a wildlife sanctuary in Orlando: “Be food for other things.” “So they’re competing with our native animals, and because they’re the more dominant species, they’re winning that battle.”
The Everglades are among the most unique and sensitive ecosystems in the world. The python’s infestation upset the fragile balance of the 6 million square kilometer wetland reserve, which is home to rare and endangered species such as manatees, Florida panthers and American alligators.
“Once a species starts reproducing in the wild, and they have a system working in their favor, it’s almost impossible to eradicate,” Heilmann says.
Florida is grappling with the most serious animal crisis in the continental United States. Invasives thrive in the state’s subtropical climate, which has hot, humid summers and wet, mild winters. There are more than 500 species of non-native plants and wildlife in the state, some of which—like snakes—take over habitats and threaten the environment.
says Kurt Foote, a ranger with the National Park Service and natural resource management specialist at Fort Matanzas National Monument in St. Augustine. “Nature depends on diversity, and when you don’t have diversity, you’re more likely to fall apart.”
There is a thriving reptile pet business in Florida. In 1992, Cyclone Andrew destroyed a Burmese python breeding facility, releasing the animals into the wild. The Category 5 hurricane also destroyed thousands of homes, freeing many exotic pets.
However, the first Burmese python was found in the Everglades in 1979, more than a decade before Hurricane Andrew, and it may have been a pet that escaped or was intentionally released by its owner. Florida residents are no longer allowed to keep Burmese pythons as pets.
“Animals can take a lot of work. Parrots are noisy. They live to be almost 80 years old. Turtles can get really big and live to be 100 years old,” says Kylie Reynolds, deputy director of Amazing Animals Inc., a nonprofit exotic animal sanctuary in St. Cloud. Assuming non-native animals that were once humans’ pets, it’s quite a commitment to have a lot of these.
“People sometimes go, ‘You know, it’s nice in Florida.'” We’ll let him loose… Maybe they think their animal will be happier. But again, they can compete for our natural resources with our native wildlife,” Reynolds says.
In addition to Burmese pythons, Florida’s most problematic invasive animals include lionfish, feral warthogs, black and white Argentine tegu lizards, and Cuban tree frogs, which can be found in many parts of the state, including Fort Matanzas.
“It’s a tree frog that’s a bit larger than what we have here, and it’s also fairly carnivorous, and will eat the local tree frogs,” Foot says. “Like a lot of invaders, when they get here, they don’t have the things that preceded them or rival them in their homelands. They get here and without that pressure, they can really reproduce and multiply.”
Feral pigs, originally brought to Florida by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, cause millions of dollars in damage to crops each year. The animals, which are found all over the state, disrupt soils in areas like Lake Apopka on Mount Dora that biologists are trying to restore.
“We grow native plants. … Often, it’s rare or endemic species,” says Ben Gugliotti, land manager at Lake Apopka North Shore Nature Reserve. “Pigs will come to those areas and root them, destroying the planting areas. that we are trying to recover. And then also you actually create a secondary opening for invasive plant species that move into those areas of disturbed soil.”
Black-and-white Argentine tegu lizards are on the mind of Cheryl Millett, director of the Tiger Creek Preserve Nature Preserve in Babson Park, which is located on Florida’s oldest and highest landmass.
“It’s a biodiversity hotspot. And yeah, we have a lot of things that… that aren’t found anywhere else,” Millett says. “And if we lose them here, we won’t have them anymore on earth.”
She is more concerned about the tegu lizards, which have not made it to Tiger Creek yet but have been spotted nearby. It can reach 1.5 meters in length.
“They found baby turtles in the guts of tegu lizards that were found in South Florida,” Millett says. “They could eat baby turtles. I am really worried about their potential impact here.”
Gopher turtles are listed as federally endangered. They are an essential species, which means they are essential to the surrounding ecosystem as they provide shelter to hundreds of other animals.
“[Tegu lizards] Gopher turtle burrows, Gopher turtle burrows have been found in South Florida,” says Millett. “Gopher turtles create these burrows. It is 10 feet deep and can reach 30 feet in length, and it harbors more than 300 different species.”
Florida spends more than $500 million annually trying to contain invasive species and the damage they cause. Officials organize hunts and amnesty programs for exotic pets and use other methods to combat invasive species. But it may be up to the education of the future.
“Our generation, we already have preconceived notions. We’re lost. We’re not going to change anything,” says Hillman of Gatorland, who speaks to school groups about wildlife conservation. Whoever spread this message to their children as they get older.”
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