‘Here be dragons’: Marco Islanders grapple with iguanas at FWC workshop

Lance Shearer

Iguanas aren’t dragons, they just look like them. Ancient maps would label terra incognita with the legend “here be dragons,” and those cartographers certainly had in mind something that looks a lot like the green iguanas that have established a firm foothold on Marco Island.

The invasive reptiles (scientific name “iguana iguana”) are herbivores, and don’t grow over five feet, with much of that consisting of a whiplike tail. But they have spread over the island, particularly along its shores, and caused concern among Marco’s human residents. Iguanas pose no physical threat to humans or pets but can undermine seawalls with their burrowing.

A green iguana faces down an intruder at Marco Lake. The City of Marco Island hosted a presentation on invasive iguanas conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Wednesday evening in the Biles Community Room.

Wednesday evening, the city sponsored an Iguana Workshop, conducted by biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC. Nearly 50 residents came to hear what the experts had to say and learn what they can do about iguanas on their property.

Marco Island definitely has an iguana situation, said City of Marco Island Environmental Planner Tonia Selmeski. Since she came to work in June, she said, there had been more complaints and communication about iguanas than any other exotic pests.

“Between sightings, calls and emails, I’d estimate about 75” citizen reports, she said.

Maria Lamb said she has seen as many as 10 iguanas sunning themselves on a seawall in the estates section and had been told by others they could count 20 iguanas at a time along the water.

“We live in the estates area. You can see 40 at one time,” said Paul Merlo, standing by his wife Marcia. “We don’t know what to do.”

Robert and Janet Choate of Yellowbird St. told a reporter there were likely iguanas visible at that moment behind their home along Marco Lake, that could be seen and photographed. They were right.

A green iguana basks in the late afternoon sun at Marco Lake. The City of Marco Island hosted a presentation on invasive iguanas conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Wednesday evening in the Biles Community Room.

After a presentation by FWC Senior Southwest Florida Non-native Fish and Wildlife Biologist Dan Quinn, Robert Choate put the question to him that many were wondering: “If I get one in a trap, what do I do with it?” The answer was maddeningly vague.

As exotic species, said Quinn, iguanas are not protected, and may be captured or killed at any time, without any permit or hunting license. But they must be disposed of “humanely.” They may be shot, as long as one complies with local firearms ordinances – FWC recommends high-powered pellet guns but doesn’t want them wounded and escaping.

Iguanas may not be poisoned or burned out with gasoline or similar substances. They may not be caught in traps that snap shut and clamp on legs or body parts. Beyond that, Quinn would not or could not specify. Could they be drowned? Frozen? No guidance was forthcoming.

Iguanas can be eaten, although they have not caught on as a food dish for U.S. diners. In their native range in Central America and the Caribbean, they are considered a delicacy.

“Oh yeah,” said Marco Island’s interim City Manager Gil Polanco. “They called them ‘chicken of the tree.’”

The FWC did offer a wealth of information and resources on how to discourage or, on the other hand, entice iguanas into a trap. They recommend baiting a mesh trap, similar to one used for raccoons, with “brightly colored, non-citrus fruit,” or alternatively hibiscus, also a favored treat for iguanas, along with roses and hibiscus.

The biologists have maps showing how iguanas have spread across the southern part of the Florida peninsula, with a strong presence in the Keys, but said since they are not cold-tolerant, they will not be able to migrate too far north – “cold comfort” for Marco Islanders. They do have websites, myFWC.com/Nonnatives, eddmaps.org, and IveGot1.com, for reporting and learning more about exotic invasive animals and plants.

The City of Marco Island may be able to offer more tangible assistance for dealing with iguanas. Selmeski said the city has a program to reimburse homeowners who have a trapper remove iguanas from their property, on a one time per property per year basis.

“You have to submit the invoice, and it has to be a reasonable cost,” she said. The city is in the process of hiring a trapper on a contract basis to handle iguana removals, she added.

The iguana workshop was part of Florida City Government Week, which also includes an Open House Friday by the police and fire departments at their headquarters.