Rogue pythons slithering through Southwest Florida underbrush have earned the most headlines recently, but that’s not the only alien predator we need to worry about.
Or, so says the South Florida Water Management District.
In written testimony this past week to Congress, a water management district official ticked off a fascinating list of dangers lurking or flying or swimming out there.
The one that grabbed most of my attention when a copy of the testimony passed by the editor’s desk wasn’t a snake, but a lizard — a big, fast, meat-eating lizard.
“The African Nile monitor (Varanus niloticus) is now established in a 20-square-mile area around Cape Coral and the Homestead area in southeastern Florida,” Dan Thayer told the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. “This carnivorous lizard grows to seven feet and is highly aquatic, climbs well and runs very quickly.”
Thayer, who is director of vegetation and land management for our water district, said the lizards are lethal to native Florida species that burrow. They are voracious egg eaters, threatening both burrowing owls and gopher tortoises.
Like most of the alien predators listed by Thayer, the huge monitor lizards came to our state as pets. Between 2000 and 2004, more than 60,000 African Nile monitors were imported through Florida ports. Some escaped from their owners or were released. In Cape Coral and Homestead, at least two lizards of the opposite sex have gotten together.
Florida law now restricts the buying and selling of the world’s five largest non-venomous snakes as well as the monitor lizard. The law also requires owners of such reptiles to pay a $100 fee and to implant a microchip in each animal. The chips are used to track any animal that escapes.
Besides the African Nile monitor and the Burmese python — the water district and other agencies have rounded up 1,300 of the snakes in the last 10 years — the green iguana, the spiny-tailed iguana, the South American apple snail and the Monk parakeet made Thayer’s list of rogues.
The green iguana digs burrows in the Florida landscape and can undermine canal banks and levees and its spiny-tailed cousin feeds on gopher tortoises.
The South American snails are displacing the native Florida snails that are the main food supply for the Everglades snail kite. The alien snails are larger, heavier and stronger than the native snails, Thayer explained, and young kites have trouble lifting and cracking them. Starvation is the result.
The parakeets — there’s at least one flock in Naples — are also from South America and are now firmly established in South Florida. Thayer’s testimony put the number as high as 150,000 birds. He said they breed rapidly, with their numbers doubling in the past five years. They can cause significant crop damage and their nesting habits in power poles and transformers can cause power outages.
Thayer said the various interlopers named are costing us billions of dollars a year in damages and control efforts.
And, it could get worse.
He concluded his testimony by warning that between 2000 and 2005, more than 1,000 venomous puff adders were imported through Florida ports. The vipers are considered one of Africa’s most dangerous snakes, Thayer said.
Only time will tell if there’s a he adder and a she adder out there.
Phil Lewis is editor of the Daily News. His e-mail address is email@example.com