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Snakes Aplenty in our Garden of Eden, but Lots of Other Aliens, Too

June 23, 2014 - 6:00pm

One of the joys of living in Florida is the diversity. We have every kind of exotic and invasive species imaginable, from the Burmese python to the liberal retiree.

Just kidding. We love our Northern newcomers, especially when they bring lots of money with them.

But when it comes to non-native plants and animals, Florida has more exotic species than any other state. There are the tegu (a large lizard from Argentina), iguanas, nutrias and Cuban tree frogs, the walking catfish and the Madagascan hissing cockroach. Newspapers currently are heralding the giant African land snail, a slimy, smelly, transgendered invader, as new, but I remember them being described as a threat in the 1960s.

Nile monitor lizards are so cute when young, they once were sold as pets. When they grow up they are "the largest, most dangerous non-indigenous lizard in the United States" and will eat your cat or dog.

Plants, like the Australian pine and Brazilian pepper, are another problem.

It costs an estimated $500 million a year to kill, corral or control all the critters that don't belong here.

Although increased travel has accelerated the problem, it is nothing new. Water hyacinths began clogging Florida waterways in the 19th century and the state has tried everything to get rid of them.

Fire ants and people were bombarded with chemicals from airplanes in the 1960s, creating a huge uproar. Now fire ants are being supplanted by tawny crazy ants, which apparently are bigger, meaner and harder to control.

Often the problems are self-inflicted. When the government was trying to drain the Everglades, it dropped melaleuca seeds by airplane into the 'Glades. The tree grows like crazy and slurps up water like a sponge. The government had to turn around and spend even more money trying to kill the trees.

At times, the government tries to use one species to control another. When hydrilla became a problem, they tried using grass carp to eat the stuff, then found the carp was a problem, too.

Other efforts have had similar results. To control the greybacked cane beetle, which threatened sugar cane, government brought in the great toad. As it turned out, the toad was just as bad and, furthermore, did little to control the beetle.

A classic case of biocontrol gone awry took place in the 1950s, when the Kiskadee was introduced to Bermuda to control Anolis lizards, which themselves had been brought in to control fruit flies. Unfortunately, the Kiskadees ate few lizards. They turned out to be a bigger pest, and were suspects in the extinction of the Bermuda Cicada.

Various attempts at legislation can help or hurt. Two years ago, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the Jurassic park bill, which would have allowed state zoos and aquariums to lease state-owned land to conduct breeding and research on animals including giraffes, zebras and rhinos.

Humans, plants and animals agree, Florida is a great place to live. The theory one old-timer in the Panhandle had that the state was the site of the Garden of Eden may not have been so crazy. But that was before politicians, of course.

Lloyd Brown was in the newspaper business nearly 50 years, beginning as a copy boy and retiring as editorial page editor of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. After retirement he served as a policy analyst for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

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