Not From Around Here, Are Ya?

From pythons to lionfish to a few kinds of lizard, South Florida is invasive species’ favorite U.S. destination. That’s a problem.


April Simpson

Published date: 

Jan. 13, 2016

Python Hunt Ron Bergeron.jpgThey were once welcomed into residential homes, but now a group of foreigners are targets of an extermination effort in South Florida. State officials agree that these “nonnatives” are silently scourging the environment. There are no reliable estimates on how many live among us – experts say tens of thousands—because they reproduce rapidly and skillfully move about undetected.

“It is a battle,” says Kristen Hart, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Davie. “It’s an all-out war using every tool you know how.”

Burmese pythons, objects of a state-sponsored slaughter, are wanted dead or alive.

They’re just the beginning.

Florida is home to more than 500 nonnative fish and wildlife species and more than 1,180 nonnative plant species, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Not all nonnative species are considered invasive, a threat to the environment or people. But dangerous invasive species, like the Burmese python and lionfish, inspire hunts with big cash prizes. The 2016 Python Challenge runs between January 16 and February 14 and will involve thousands of hunters heading into the Florida backcountry looking to bag a big snake.

The FWC numbers reflect only the types of nonnatives experts have documented. Large swaths of the Everglades are too dense for humans to access. Can you imagine how many other foreign creatures are out there undetected?

“There are probably animals in places we’ll never be able to get to and we won’t be able to know what effect they’re having,” Hart says.

As a major port region and international hub, experts say South Florida is struggling with invasive species more than any area of the country. “We are probably the number one destination port area for the shipment of live animals across the U.S.,” says David Pharo, Southeast Florida-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Resident Agent in Charge. One out of every three inspections at its port, air and international mail facilities results in some law enforcement action. Commercial wildlife shipments are supposed to come through Miami International Airport only, but as Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport grows and expands, the agency is responding to more wildlife seizures there than at any other regional facility, Pharo says.

The challenges reflect the popularity of the exotic pet trade. In March, Global Pet Expo, billed as the pet industry’s largest annual trade show, returns to Orlando, where it drew pet product buyers from 82 countries last year. In addition, pet shops and owners have been known to release their exotic pets into the wild, even if unintentionally. Like tourists and snowbirds, once they’re unleashed, nonnatives find South Florida to be a hospitable environment.

“If a Burmese python got loose in Montreal, that would probably be it for the winter,” says Timothy Collins, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Florida International University. “But when a Burmese python gets loose in South Florida, it says, ‘Hey, I’m home.’”

Roaming freely, nonnatives don’t encounter the same natural predators or obstacles that kept their growth under control in the old country. They can multiply rapidly. Plus, they’re varied.

“The rule of thumb is that maybe one out of 100 nonnative species will become established, and maybe one out of 100 of those will become a problem,” Collins says. “That sounds like good odds, but if these things are being introduced at a good rate… we have higher odds than other places.”

Python Paradise

When asked how the Burmese python population became so unwieldy, the FWC points to two occurrences: Burmese python, native to South and Southeast Asia, are thought to have been released locally by pet owners as early as 1979. Years later in 1992, many escaped from a pet breeding facility destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. In 2010, to combat the growing population, the Florida Legislature outlawed acquiring Burmese python as personal pets.

“I don’t know what impact it had on pythons in the wild because there were already so many there,” Hart says.

Burmese pythons are experts at squeezing into small spaces and blending in with their environment. “I’ve actually stepped on them before I could see them,” says FWC Commissioner Ron Bergeron, although to be fair, he was walking in swamps in the Everglades when that happened.

Python detection rates are nearly zero. The last Python Challenge, in 2013, drew more than 1,600 participants - who captured 68 snakes in total. “They’re hard to find even for people who are looking for them,” Hart says.

Over time, the Burmese python have had devastating effects on the environment. Females can lay as many as 100 eggs. In addition, they’re generalist predators, with no dietary preference for any particular bird or mammal. In a study, researchers found more muskrats in the stomachs of pythons than they spotted in a survey for muskrats. And as ambush predators, they’re good at preying on hard-to-spot birds like rails. “What can they not eat?” Hart asks.

“I think the python has got a big challenge when he gets on an eight-foot alligator,” says Bergeron. “Other than that, they could eat a panther. They eat deer. They eat any fur-bearing animal that’s out there.”

As Burmese python sample the environment, they’re wiping out mammals in Everglades National Park and threatening top predators like bobcats and alligators. The decline in mammals, seed dispersers, negatively impacts vegetation, the basis of the food web, Hart says. Destroying the natural food chain would affect 68 endangered species in the Everglades, according to Bergeron. Native species that fail to adapt to this large predator will eventually disappear.

We’re Going On a Snake Hunt

If you’re like me, you’re not the type of person who knowingly gets too close to reptiles or any other animal for that matter. As unpopular as it is to say, I’m not even a dog person (I beg you to keep reading anyway). So when I heard about the state-sponsored python challenge, my first thought was that this is a very Florida exercise—what other state encourages its residents to capture reptiles in the wild? And then I wondered whether I could report on the challenge without having to participate.

The 2016 Python Challenge was first announced late last summer, with in-person training sessions that kicked off in October. I attended an early session to learn, for starters, who does this? According to the FWC, participants tend to be well educated, environmentally aware and socially oriented.

There are six of us in my training group, although an FWC spokesperson says they expect participation to increase in the run-up to the kickoff. I’m excited to see another woman, but she isn’t participating. Her summer dress and sandals should have tipped me off. Instead, she’s come to support her husband. The rest, all white, male and middle-aged, save for a teenager, say they are there to build a father-son connection, confront a fear of snakes or win the grand prize money.  

“Heck, it’s $5,000,” says Jimmy Fulgham, a 56-year-old Iraq War veteran. “I’m retired, and I’ve got plenty of time.”

Before outdoor practice with live pythons, Jenny Novak, the FWC’s python patrol leader, quickly reviews the challenge and shares tips inside Daggerwing Nature Center in Boca Raton. “One of our main goals of the python challenge is to protect the Everglades environment,” Novak says. Don’t cut paths. Haul out trash.

Pythons like to rest along canals, where they can easily become “D.O.R.,” or Dead On Road python. Don’t grab a dead python with your bare hands. It could still bite you. “There are always potential dangers when you’re capturing a python,” Novak says.

One classmate, 53-year-old Brad Combs, is here to confront a fear of snakes. To me, fearing a dangerous constrictor is entirely rational and doesn’t require confrontation. Brett McGee, 49, wants to steer his son away from playing video games. He also wants to enlist the 13-year-old as a hunting partner and thought the Python Challenge would be a fun activity before pursuing hogs and deer together.

I’m not like my classmates. As a kid, shortly after moving from Yonkers, N.Y. to Homosassa, Fla., I saw a turtle in the road while riding my bicycle down the block. I immediately returned home. It just didn’t feel right.

“I grew up in the country,” says Fulgham, who speaks with a thick Mississippi drawl. “It’s no big deal. We catch snakes all the time.”

But to me, it is a big deal. Hunting animals as sport is a distant and foreign culture to me. I’ve barely touched a snake. I grew up in a subdivision. Now, I’m learning how to capture a python with my bare hands only so that I can tell you about it.

We’ll start with the small snakes, says Jeff Fobb, an FWC technician. He asks the group if anyone is nervous. I raise my hand. He suggests I go first. Great. Sure. How far can I push this?

Fobb releases a six-footer that slithers toward a tree. He reminds me to grab its tail, but I tug on it, and the nasty thing turns around and hisses at me. I’m all squeals. Fobb intervenes. As the snake slithers toward him, he stands still. We repeat this exercise several times. When Fobb is still, the snake comes right up to his feet and stops or slinks past him.

Eventually, the snake keeps still long enough for me to press my club against its neck, just like I was taught in class 30 minutes earlier. Now, I have to grip it tightly around the neck with one hand and release the club. Again, who does this? At each step, I tell Fobb he should take over. I can’t do this. Patiently, he coaches me through it.

After much melodrama, I get the snake in the bag. Fobb tells me to close it with tape. I hold the bag with my body angled away like the bag is diseased. I put it in a second bag. I throw it in the plastic container. Look at me, I did it!

“This was probably more fun for us than it was for you,” Combs’ wife says.

A little embarrassed, I apologize to the group for taking so long. Trying to deflect attention, I ask, “Why didn’t anyone else volunteer to go first?” “We’re waiting for the big snakes,” McGee says.

Python hunting: Not for everybody

Although participants caught few snakes in the last Python Challenge, the FWC puts a positive spin on it. The event raised public awareness, supported research on the snakes’ dispersion and seasonal behavior, and was the “largest amount ever removed in a similar time period,” according to a spokeswoman. They use similar reasoning to justify this year’s challenge.

Others are less optimistic.

“I don’t know of any scientist who thinks that it’s going to have any serious impact on the population of Burmese python,” says Collins, the FIU professor.

Commissioner Bergeron says the hunt will aid research on the snakes’ diet and location. He says year-round python hunting for experienced hunters helps also. Old gladesmen like him can surely impact the population.

“If you’re an expert, you can retrieve them alive, but most people probably shouldn’t attempt that because they can bite you,” Bergeron says. “I wouldn’t recommend the average person to go jump on a 20-foot snake. I do it, but I’m a little out there to start with. That’s why they call me Alligator Ron.”

Bergeron also wrestles alligators.

Hart and her USGS colleagues are employing several strategies to better understand the enemy. They’re using more sophisticated technologies like GPS tags to track python activity. They’re also completing a genetic analysis to understand population diversity, and working with environmental DNA to identify whether a python has been in a body of water.

“We’re never going to get rid of them”

To find another of South Florida’s most problematic invasive species, you don’t head inland towards the Everglades but out into the Atlantic. Like the Burmese python, lionfish are skilled hunters who arrived here through the pet trade, lack predators, breed rapidly and wreak havoc on the ecosystem. The many types of fish they’ll eat include the juveniles of economically important species such as snapper and grouper as well as smaller herbivorous fish needed around reefs. Oh, and for humans, they pack a nasty sting. 

We also don’t know how many swim in our waters. “Probably millions,” says Matthew Johnston, a research scientist at Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography at Nova Southeastern University.

An ornate fish with vivid stripes, flowing fins and spiky fin rays, the lionfish’s look explains its popularity in fish tanks. Native to the Indo-Pacific, it is believed to have begun its life in the wild here in much the same way as the Burmese python – by being set loose by pet owners. The whole population came from perhaps as few as 10 individuals, Johnston says. First discovered in a lobster trap off of Dania Beach in 1985, they’re now known to be throughout the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and up the eastern seaboard to North Carolina.

“We’re never going to get rid of them,” Johnston says.

In 2014, Florida banned all lionfish imports. Scientists are trying to control the population by determining how many lionfish they would need to remove to reduce their impact to a level in which “they’re not going to wipe out an entire reef,” Johnston says. The primary method for removing them is with spears, a labor-intensive process. In addition, lionfish are often found in deep waters, “way beyond where divers can reach them,” Johnston says. Others are working on developing traps or aggregating devices to group them together.

“In the end, scientists hope there will be a balance where something large will prey on them, or a disease will help to control them or wipe them out,” Johnston says.

“A Huge Cast of Characters”

Other worrisome species include large lizards like the Nile monitor, native to the Nile River delta and Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Argentine black and white tegu. According to a 2014 study, the four-foot-long tegu eats small mammals, as well as alligator and turtle eggs. It’s common in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, but has also been spotted as far as the Panhandle and Nassau County. If the tegu can survive in colder climates, it could potentially threaten species across a wider area.

The Florida Department of Agriculture is battling the Giant African Snail, another pest with an indiscriminate diet. The East African mollusks reproduce quickly, carry parasites, cause structural damage to plaster and stucco structures, and have no known predators in Florida.

Last summer, a study published in PeerJ sounded the alarm for the first U.S. mainland instance of New Guinea flatworm in Miami. Counted among the world’s 100 worst invasive alien species by the Invasive Species Specialist Group, the flatworm threatens native snails, and easily spreads via infected plants, pots and soil.

“There’s just a huge cast of characters,” Collins says.

But for Commissioner Bergeron, there’s no question of which invasive we should focus on. “The python stands out to me as the most damaging,” Bergeron says. “I would say other invasive species in there are pretty well equal, not certainly anywhere near the magnitude of the python.”

Once invasive species take hold, it’s nearly impossible to get rid of them and costly, which got me thinking, maybe there’s a bright spin to put on this. Can the nonnative species - transplants like me - add to South Florida’s vibrancy and diversity? Like the green iguanas that regale tourists along the New River near Las Olas, we come from all over the country, and some from points abroad. We speak our own language, have our own styles of dress and preferred places to hangout. Maybe, over time, it’s possible for us to adapt to the nonnatives and for the nonnatives to adapt to us? 

“If we sit around and wait for these things to become a problem, by the time they become a problem, (they’re) much more difficult to control,” Collins says.

OK, maybe not.