Florida: The State in a Natural Emergency

By: Nicole Jennings

The natural balance between man and nature is ever-changing. As we expand and consume, nature is forced to retract and try to make-do with what is left. The human population is continuously soaring, and we are invariably in need of new places to live, things to eat and items to entertain ourselves with. With this happening, it seems that any devotion to wildlife or natural resources have fallen by the wayside. In order to fulfill that need for new entertainment, people began trading animals across the world hundreds of years ago to make as their own personal pets. It began innocently, and then quickly grew until there seemed to be no animals off limits. From fish to tigers, as long as you have the right paperwork and the money, anything could be yours.

Though the trading of animals began a while ago, the demand for reptiles really took off within the last 50 years. This is where a lot of problems began, especially in Florida. As people bought reptiles, some realized that the adult version of the baby animal they bought is not what they signed up for. Sadly, many people buy reptiles spontaneously without doing the research on their care or lifespan. Therefore, the result was quite often, and still is, that these animals would be released outside because the owner no longer could afford them/didn’t want to care for them. This especially became a problem in Florida because of the warm weather. Reptiles can most likely live during the summers in other states, but cannot withstand the cold once it comes. Luckily for them, the weather hardly gets below 65 in the coldest winter months of South Florida. This perfect habitat and the irresponsibility of a few owners has created a breeding ground for non-native reptiles that have successfully taken over a some of Florida’s most pristine natural environments.

Florida is now ranked number one worldwide for invasive species, which include many reptiles that range from small lizards to the very large Burmese python. These invasive reptile species are classified as both non-native and invasive, but there is a difference between those two labels! Non-native species are simply animals who are not from the wild environment they are living in. These are typically a few documented individuals. When a species is classified as invasive, it means that entire populations of that non-native animal are established, expanding, and self-sustaining. When invasive species are established in areas they don’t naturally belong in, they cause drastic damage to the ecosystem and to the native animals living in it. Worldwide, invasive species are the second leading cause of extinction, so it is a huge challenge for any ecosystem to try to withstand.

Native species are animals that belong in the environment because they evolved over a long period of time to fit into they’re ecosystem. Native species can be endemic or indigenous; endemic meaning they are found only in a specific area or region, while indigenous means they can be found in multiple regions (sometimes including other countries). These native species belong in their special ecosystems, and that makes them worthy candidates for protection. Because they are so specifically adapted to their unique habitats, or niches, they are not able to deal with unnatural quick changes like invasive species. Often, the invasive species have the advantage, outcompeting the native species for resources like food and shelter. Invasive species are unnatural, and removal programs are now required to handle the intense damage that these species are causing. One of the worst results of invasive reptiles is that they are causing native species of all kinds (not just reptiles) to become threatened, endangered, or even extinct.

One of the most prominent figures of South Florida’s invasive species is the Burmese python (Python molurus bivittatus). This snake is native to Southeast Asia and is a large constrictor that can grow to over 18 feet long. It has relatively no predators in the Florida Everglades, besides an occasional scuffle with alligators and crocodiles, where many times the Burmese python has been documented winning. The Burmese python is outcompeting all other native snake species and continues to impact the native mammal, reptile, and bird populations of the Everglades (see reference photo below). During Hurricane Andrew in 1992, a Burmese python breeding facility was destroyed, releasing hundreds of these large pythons directly into the Everglades. It is also a very popular theory that some irresponsible pet owners released a few of their personal snakes in addition to the hurricane damage. With all of these individuals on the loose, it didn’t take long for a breeding population to become established.

The best thing we can do is to remove these animals from the wild and prevent any more from being released. The Burmese python is just one of hundreds of invasive species in Florida alone! Other invasive species include lists of reptiles, amphibians, mammals, birds, plants, and insects. The impact that these invasive species have had are a prime example of the damage humans can do when we mess with the natural balance of an ecosystem.

It is so important to remember that every person can make a huge impact in this world, and to never doubt the power each one of us holds on the balance of nature.

“These species are not inherently bad. They’re just in the wrong place.” ~ David M. Lodge

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