Invasive species can occur anywhere, so long as the environment they are introduced to is relatively similar to the environmental conditions of where they are from. Certain areas are more susceptible to invasive species than others, including the state of Florida which has become a hot bed of invasive species. In this article, we will introduce some of the most prolific invasive reptiles in Florida.
What are invasive species?
Invasive species are non-native species that are introduced to a new area or range and then become abundant in their introduced range; causing economic or ecological damage to the area.
Invasive species can cause immense damage to where they’ve been introduced. This damage can be economic damage through invasive species eating crops, damaging infrastructure, or even through the costs for the efforts to remove invasive species. More worrisome though is the ecological effects that invasive species can cause.
Invasive species may wipe out native populations by predation (eating native species), competition for resources (shelter and food), or even through spreading non-native parasites.
7 problematic and invasive reptiles in Florida
Because of Florida’s hot and humid climate, it is able to support many different species of reptiles, including species that should not be there. There are around 140 different species of reptiles and amphibians native to Florida, making it one of the more biodiverse parts of the United States.
In addition to the native residents, there are approximately 60 species of invasive reptiles and amphibians that are established in Florida. The below list highlights 7 of the most problem causing and threatening invasive species in Florida today. Let’s have a look.
1. Burmese Python
- Scientific name: Python bivittatus
- Estimated population in Florida: 30,000-300,000
- Where they are found in Florida: All throughout the Florida Everglades and Southern Florida
The Burmese Python is arguably one of the most problematic invasive species in Florida. These snakes are native to Southeast Asia but have also made the Florida Everglades their home. Burmese Pythons are also popular pets, however many owners aren’t ready for these snakes and end up releasing them into to the wild where they thrive in Florida’s climate.
It is difficult to know exactly how many Burmese Pythons are in the Florida Everglades because they are truly very secretive animals and can be difficult to find in the vast wetlands of the Everglades, meaning that there could be far more in Florida than we know.
They grow to be huge (up to 20+ feet) which is part of the reason they are so detrimental. In order for them to grow to be that large, they need to eat a lot, which leads to the loss of hundreds of native animals.
Not only that, but once they get to a certain size, they can eat just about anything and have been known to eat animals as large as alligators.
For more information about invasive Burmese Pythons in Florida: How have invasive pythons impacted Florida ecosystems?
2. Green Iguana
- Scientific name: Iguana iguana
- Estimated population in Florida: Unknown, but there have been over 3,000 reports of Iguana sightings since 2005
- Where they are found in Florida: Florida Keys, Southern Florida
Green Iguanas are incredibly problematic in Florida, but for different reasons than the Burmese Python. These giant green lizards can grow to be up to five feet long (from nose to the end of their tail) and can be found in most places in Florida.
They are arboreal, meaning they spend much of their life up in the trees. However, they can also be found near water and are great swimmers.
Part of the reason they are such a problem in Florida is that Green Iguanas have been known to burrow underground. While digging burrows may seem fairly innocent, these burrow systems have accumulated to millions of dollars in damage to infrastructure throughout Florida. Green Iguanas also cause trouble by snacking on the plants found in people’s gardens.
For more information about Green Iguanas in Florida: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
3. Argentine Tegu
- Scientific name: Salvator merianae
- Estimated population in Florida: Unknown
- Where they are found in Florida: Southern to central Florida, however there are small populations found as far north as Jacksonville
Like Green Iguanas, Argentine Tegus are giant lizards that have quickly made their mark on Florida, and not in a good way. They grow up to 4.5 feet long and can be found in disturbed areas, which allows for them to thrive in busy areas such as Miami-Dade county.
Argentine Tegus seem to be more resilient to cooler temperatures, whereas other invasive reptiles have been known to die off during infrequent cold snaps. During the winter months, Argentine Tegus will spend much of their time in burrows which allows them to keep warm.
Argentine Tegus are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and animals. Their diet also consists of eggs, which is a big problem for native egg-laying wildlife. Argentine Tegus have been known to eat the eggs of several different endangered native species in Florida, making the impacts that Tegus cause mostly ecological.
For more information on Argentine Tegus in Florida: Croc docs: Argentine Tegus
4. Nile Monitor
- Scientific name: Varanus niloticus
- Estimated population in Florida: 1000+
- Where they are found in Florida: Southern Florida
The biggest lizard to make this list, the Nile Monitor, can reach lengths of up to 7 feet from snout to tail. Monitors are in the same genus of another giant reptile you may recognize, the Komodo Dragon, but luckily do not get nearly as big! That being said, they have still caused big problems for Florida’s native wildlife.
Nile Monitors are most often found near water in urban and suburban areas. They are thought to travel through water ways via canals. Nile Monitors are not picky eaters and will eat mammals, birds, other reptiles, insects and fish. They also have been known to eat the eggs of native wildlife.
Not only do they eat wild animals, they have also been found eating livestock and even people’s pets. There is no doubt that Nile Monitors will continue to cause big problems for Floridians if they are not eradicated.
For more information on Nile Monitors in Florida: Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission: Nile Monitors
5. African Rock Pythons
- Scientific name: Python sebae
- Estimated population in Florida: 10-30 +
- Where they are found in Florida: There is a small population of African Rock Pythons in Miami
African Rock Pythons are in the same genus as Burmese Pythons, and just like their relatives these snakes can grow to be pretty big. On average, adults are around 11.5 feet.
Luckily, the populations of African Rock Pythons have not exploded like the Burmese Python populations, however they are still a threat to Florida’s wildlife. African Rock Pythons can be found in wetlands, agricultural areas, near canals, and suburban areas.
African Rock Pythons have a similar diet to their relatives (mammals and birds) and therefore pose a threat to the native wildlife, making their impacts mainly ecological. These snakes have proven very hard to find and there have been many efforts to track them down to eradicate them which is a costly expense.
Not much is known about their population in Florida, but what we do know is that Florida really does not need another giant constrictor plaguing the native wildlife.
For more information on African Rock Pythons in Florida: Florida Museum: African Rock Python
6. Red Tail Boa Constrictor
- Scientific name: Boa constrictor
- Estimated population in Florida: Unknown
- Where they are found in Florida: Southern Florida
Red-tailed Boas are another large constricting snake that have found a home in Florida, however they do not get nearly as big as Burmese Pythons or African Rock Pythons. They typically grow to be around eight feet long and eat birds, small mammals and lizards.
Red-tailed Boas are mainly arboreal, which puts native birds or other tree-dwelling vertebrates at risk. They prefer less disturbed habitats and can be found in forest patches in Southern Florida.
Boas are related to Pythons, however one key difference is that Boas give birth to live young while Pythons lay eggs. Red-tailed Boas can give birth to up to 40 babies at once.
For more information on Red-tailed Boas in Florida: Florida Museum: Boa Constrictor
7. Veiled Chameleon
- Scientific name: Chamaeleo calyptratus
- Estimated population in Florida: 100+
- Where they are found in Florida: Mainly Miami-Dade county, but have been known to breed as far north as Fort Myers
The smallest reptile to make this list, the Veiled Chameleon grows to be 24+ inches. They are native to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, making them a long way from home. In Florida they are found on the outskirts of urban areas and in vacant lots. They spend their time in bushes, shrubs, and thick vegetation.
The Veiled Chameleon is less problematic than the other species on this list, but they are also relatively new to Florida so biologists are not fully aware of the effects they may have in Florida. They are mainly insectivorous and are thought to compete with other native lizards for food.
However, Veiled Chameleons that have become established in Hawaii have been found to eat other small vertebrates, which could come to impact native vertebrate populations in Florida.
For more information on Veiled Chameleons in Florida: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: Veiled Chameleons
These are only a handful of invasive reptiles found in Florida. Many of the other invasive reptiles found in Florida are small lizards or frogs and are not quite as prolific as the animals on this list.
One problem with invasive species is trying to figure out just how many there are and how widely their impacts may range. Estimating populations for reptiles is especially tricky as they can be very hard to find.
Florida is home to a booming exotic pet trade which is part of the reason why there are so many invasive reptiles in Florida. And the fact that the Florida climate tends to be perfect for reptiles doesn’t help either.
There have been a number of other reptiles that are not native to Florida that have been spotted in Florida, including snakes like Anacondas, Reticulated Pythons, and even King Cobras, however these are not actually considered invasive (yet) because they have not established self-sustaining breeding populations.
Instead these sightings are thought to be from the odd escaped pet here and there. For a list of some of the other crazy reptiles that have been reported in Florida check out this list from Florida Fish and Wildlife: Nonnative Reptiles Reported in Florida