Saturday, December 11, 2010

Beautiful Invaders of the Everglades

Midas Cichlid, from
So based on my last post (really, last several posts), I think that we can agree that Florida's land and water have changed a lot in the last 120 years.  I mentioned how Florida's human population tripled in the 1960s, and then quadrupled again between 1970 and 2010.  And with all these people moving south and learning about Florida's amazing flora and fauna, you might think that they would revere, or at least enjoy, Florida's wildlife for what it was.  You'd be wrong.  Especially in South Florida.
South Florida's wide open spaces, lax animal breeding regulations, and tropical climate have become a disastrous combination of factors for the plants and animals who originally evolved to survive in those swampes, marshes, prairies, and forests.  They've been replaced -in many cases, quite intentionally - by more attractive, more aggressive species from China, South America, and even Africa.  There are hundreds of species of animals released intentionally by importers, breeders, and pet owners who had no business living in the Everglades.  In most areas of North America, the majority of these imported critters would die within the first hard winter. South Florida has no, or few, harsh winters.  The survivors multiply and begin competing with the natives for food and habitat. 
A great example is the Midas Cichlid, shown above. A native of Central American lakes, the Midas Cichlid was discovered in drainage canals on the edge of the Everglades in the 1980s, according to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission. These three pound fish are aggressive and compete with native freshwater fish for food. In fact, Midas Cichlids and Oscars (below) became so prolific and had such damage on juvenile sportfish that the FWC introduced another invasive species, peacock bass, to control the spread of the first two. 

The Oscar - A Freshwater Aquarium Classic and an Everglades Nuisance
You have probably seen an Oscar.  There's a logical progession with (household) aquarium owners, especially college-age aquarium owners.  In an effort to witness more and more displays of fish behavior (instead of casually swimming around), the freshwater fish enthusiast gradually buys more and more aggressive fish.  One of the culminations of this scale is the Oscar, a South American cichlid.  I was shocked to see Oscars swimming among the alligators in the canals of the Everglades! How did they become wild and invasive? Well, that's the thing about Oscars.  They get really, really big and mean.  And then their owners release them.  As I mentioned, this is not a problem in northern states because cold water will obviously kill them.  The canal water in the Everglades will not. 
I'm sad to say that it's not just fish who have invaded the Everglades.  Other beautiful, awful animals have arrived.

Veiled chameleon
This beautiful lizard, the veiled chameleon, is an absolute menace to South Florida's birds.  Why? Florida birds are not evolutionarily equipped to recognize and avoid this native of Saudi Arabia.........and this lizard is insatiable. A collection of them was released on a rural vacant lot in Southwest Florida in the last several years, and while hundreds of chameleons have been collected in the area, FWC suspects that many more have moved into the surrounding savannah habitat on the west side of the Everglades. Not good.  Which brings us to the king of Everglades invaders:

Burmese Python - USFWS
If you watch "Python Wars" on the National Geographic Explorer channel, then you already know all of this....sorry!  During 1992's Hurricane Andrew, several south Florida reptile breeders lost their facilities to wind and flooding.  Over time, most of the bizarre amphibians and reptiles were found, dead or alive.  Among the missing for nearly a decade....the Burmese Python, Ball Python, and Nile Monitor Lizard.  Big freakin' reptiles.  In 2000, two Burmese were captured.  In 2001, three were captured.  Since 2007, at least 250 per year have been captured in the Everglades.  These snakes are wreaking havoc on Everglades birds, and reproduce prolifically.
Ranger and burmese python - NPS

A lot of people are asking why the National Park Service has been so slow to mobilize resources to control these species, especially the Burmese Python. I don't have an answer for that question, and since I wasn't in Florida to be a part of that process, I can't even accurately state why things happened the way the did, at the speed they did.  The fact is, these species and dozens of others (including plants) are now part of the Everglades ecosystem.  In many cases, there's just no going back.


Anonymous said...

This was a very interesting post. I sure did like the fish part, it was very ironic what you said.

Whitetail Woods Blog / Deer Hunting and Blackpowder Shooting at it’s best.

Kirk Mantay said...

Thanks Rick. I will be fishing for peacock bass during our next trip (hopefully spring 2011) and look forward to blogging more about it then!

Anonymous said...

Hi, just stumbled upon your article while researching cichlids---nice article. Thank you for the info on cichlids in Fla. I had no idea they were there, but it makes sense they would thrive.

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