January 11, 2008

The Non-native Animal Assault on Florida

Jeanne Murphy, Wildlife Biologist

By Jeanne Murphy
Wildlife Biologist

Florida’s mild winters, lush summers and remarkable habitats make supporting wildlife diversity a snap. Unfortunately, non-native or exotic wildlife is also supported by our beautiful Florida wind, water and land. Many animals journey to Florida accidentally on plants and in soil, on boats, automobiles, or even in ballast water that is used for stabilizing ships during travel from other countries. Some arrive in Florida through other means including the pet trade industry and illegal smuggling. While other non-natives flush into Florida benefiting from human landscape changes and native predator eradication. However these exotics surface on Florida’s feet, they may become problematic. New diseases and parasites spread to our native species, habitats soon become entrenched with non-natives, food and water resources become battling grounds, and shrinking Florida natural areas become even smaller for our Florida native wildlife.

Cuban Treefrogs:
Cuban Treefrog(Osteopilus septentrionalis)Photo Credit: Brent Hansen(Osteopilus septentrionalis)
This exotic treefrog is found throughout the southern 2/3 of the state and is likely expanding its range; it is even being found in South Carolina. The Cuban treefrog is native to Cuba, the Bahamas and Cayman Islands. It out competes our native treefrogs for shelter, food and breeding areas as well as it preys on our native amphibian, reptile and insect species. Its enlarged toe-discs are adapted for climbing and attaching to vertical surfaces. Colors are quite various—from pale tan or deep brown to occasionally bright green. They may have body markings or may be more uniform in color. In comparison to our native treefrogs, Cuban treefrogs have bumpy skin, enormous eyes and can grow up to six inches long (female). Our common green treefrog, which is eaten by the Cuban treefrog, only grows up to 2.5 inches. (Photo Credit: Brent Hansen)

African Gambian Pouch Rat:
African Pouch Rat (Cricetomys spp.)Photo Credit: spp.)
Another non-native rodent sinks its teeth into Florida—starting in the Florida Keys. Believed to be escapees from an exotic pet breeder, the African Gambian pouch rat can grow to the size of a young raccoon. This mammal is an omnivore eating just about anything it wants. Biologists are concerned that our current population will likely expand its range. This expansion may add even more pressure to declining native Keys species such as the endangered Key Largo wood rat. If this non-native rat moves into the Everglades, there is little hope for its control. Another non-native creature in the Everglades—isn’t that just what we need? Fortunately, purchasing one is now prohibited by the state and eradication efforts are being made. (Photo Credit:

Monk Parakeet:
Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus)(Myiopsitta monachus)
Beautiful green shimmering feathers under Florida’s sun should bring a smile to anyone’s face—well, as long as you like paying more for your power bills. Monk parakeets, native to Argentina, seem to be more of a challenge to humans than other animals. These parakeets originally from the pet trade industry are noisy and gregarious (live in groups) and often nest on power poles and at substations. Their adaptations to these urban environments cause power outages, utility staff overtime and additional expenses that trickle down to the energy users—us. Researchers are seeking birth control methods as possible solutions to this non-native bird’s expanding population and range in the United States. Some states even have laws against owning this animal as a pet, because most of its ‘escapes’ are due to the pet trade industry.

Through research, educational outreach and citizen action, we can attempt to realign some of the erratic balance shifts that humans have caused whether intentionally or inadvertently. Remember, pets are for the life of the animals, not until they become inconvenient. Realize that you can help protect our native Florida wildlife and ecosystems from the invading sea of non-natives—get involved!

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