At Audubon, Chris Sweeney reports on how large reptiles like the Nile monitor and the Argentine tegu — brought to the United States and sold via the very loosely regulated reptile pet trade — have escaped and flourished in Florida’s subtropical environment, wreaking havoc on bird species like the burrowing owl as well as “herons, egrets, ibises, and spoonbills.” The grand-daddy of all the invasive reptiles? The Burmese python, which can grow to 18 feet and is thought to have “decimated the small mammal population in the Everglades.” Burmese pythons have been known to eat “everything — rabbits, rats, bobcats, deer, even alligators.”
It’s a sweaty morning last June on the outskirts of Tampa, and droves of reptile enthusiasts are streaming into an air-conditioned expo center. Some have woken early to trek out to the Florida State Fairgrounds to get first crack at the animals of Repticon, a weekendlong extravaganza that’s similar to a baseball card convention, except instead of mint-condition Mickey Mantles and Pete Roses there are green anacondas and meat-eating lizards. One vendor’s table is covered in flimsy plastic catering trays that are filled with ball pythons. Others are selling Asian water monitors, gargoyle geckos, yellow rat snakes, and bearded dragons. A guy strolls by wearing a “Snakes Lives Matter” t-shirt. Another man, who has a three-foot-long lizard slung across his chest like a bandolier, is at a nearby booth admiring a young boa constrictor that’s twirling around his girlfriend’s fingers. Price? $100. Sold.
Roughly 60 Repticons take place each year, from Phoenix to Oklahoma City to Baltimore, attracting an estimated 200,000 visitors. These shows represent but a tiny sliver of the live-reptile trade, a loosely regulated industry that spans the globe and generates an estimated $1.2 billion in revenue annually, according to the United States Association of Reptile Keepers. In much of the continental United States, these cold-blooded creatures aren’t likely to fare well outdoors should they escape or be set free. But the sub-tropics of South Florida are different, and the best adapted have not only survived in the wild, they have thrived. To date the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC, has identified 50 types of non-native lizards, turtles, crocodilians, and snakes within state limits, more than anywhere else in the world.
For the birds of Florida, this blitz of exotic predators poses an existential-scale threat. The Burmese pythons, which stalk wading birds in the Everglades, have become so menacing that the state has hosted derby-style competitions to catch them. Farther north, Nile monitors—the largest lizard in Africa—have been terrorizing a population of Burrowing Owls in the city of Cape Coral. And on the outskirts of Florida City, just outside Everglades National Park, egg-eating Argentine tegus could soon raid the nesting grounds of one of the last remaining populations of the endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow. Each of these reptiles found their way to Florida via the pet trade—but while most people acknowledge that’s a leaky pipeline, few agree on whether and how to plug it.
Nile monitors have no business in this hemisphere. As their name implies, they should be basking along the shores of Africa’s Nile Delta, but they got popular in the pet trade and rumor has it that the owner of a now defunct pet store, scheming a source of free inventory, let some loose behind his shop so they would breed in the wild. Unsurprisingly the lizards quickly fanned out across Cape Coral’s extensive canal system. The first sighting likely dates back to before 1990, though it wasn’t until the early 2000s that they began regularly popping up in people’s backyards. If you’re not accustomed to large lizards, an adult Nile monitor dashing across your lawn might be terrifying. They can top seven feet, swim like Michael Phelps, and eat rodents, birds, rabbits, wasp nests, venomous rattlesnakes, poisonous cane toads, and, according to some residents, cats and dogs.
“Pythons are definitely eating birds,” says Brian Smith, a biologist who works for Cherokee Nation Technologies, a company contracted by the United States Geological Survey to help manage the invasive Burmese python population. A few years ago, Smith went to capture a python in Everglades National Park. The snake was in a shallow marsh and Smith noticed a bulge in its stomach. He moved in and grabbed the python near the base of its head. Suddenly two bird feet popped out of the snake’s mouth. A moment later, another two feet shot out. The snake writhed and in one fell swoop regurgitated a pair of full-grown Great Blue Herons. Smith couldn’t believe his eyes as the corpses poured out and flopped to the ground. Both birds’ heads were missing; other than that the animals were intact and easy to identify.