MARCO ISLAND — Reviled by some because they’re not fussy where they leave their toxic droppings, but revered by others because of their exotic nature and looks, iguanas appear to have taken a big population hit during this past winter’s extended freeze.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if 50 percent of them are not around any more,” said trapper Chris Harlow, who for the past year has contracted with the city of Marco Island to control the non-native reptiles.
“They generally like being in trees, and when it’s cold they basically just go to sleep, and either die on the branches or fall dead out of the trees,” Harlow said.
Breeding season is imminent, however, and some time after the females’ eggs hatch in July, there should be some indication of survival rates, he said.
Females usually lay about 50 to 80 eggs at a time, and 80 percent of those usually hatch.
One uncertainty in the equation, Harlow added, is that heat-loving iguanas have become more crafty and wily as they’ve adapted to the shifting Southwest Florida weather patterns.
“Some go underground ... they’ve adapted to the Marco lifestyle,” Harlow said. “They also burrow under seawalls, which is why you see holes around them.”
Harlow said iguanas are fairly widespread throughout the area, including Sanibel Island, Cape Coral and Boca Grande at the northern Lee County line, but that he hasn’t been called for any controlling in Naples.
The city of Naples has no control program, city Natural Resources Manager Mike Bauer confirmed.
“We do get one or two complaints a year, but it’s rare,” Bauer said. “They live around lakes and do feed on tortoise eggs and lizards, so we’re not very happy with them. They’re around, but we’re not overrun.”
Harlow said Marco is the newest island in the area to experience iguana problems, with the other islands mentioned having a head start of about a decade.
In his year servicing Marco so far, he’s trapped about 600 iguanas, which are then humanely euthanized using a cold technique.
This fits the law, because species deemed exotic aren’t allowed to be relocated anywhere in the wild.
Marco Island city environmental specialist Nancy Richie said the non-native species compete with limited populations of burrowing owls, shore birds, gopher tortoises and sea turtles.
Harlow calls the ones downed by the cold weather “casualties,” Richie said, “and lately he’s only been catching one or two per trip.”
She said the trapper is paid about $300 for each weekly outing, and that this might become monthly because of the population decline.