Iguanas have taken Florida by storm, but how did it happen, and why is Florida so intolerant to its scaly green residents. Perhaps, it’s because iguanas are not as innocent as they may first seem to be.
Exotic pet dealers were responsible for importing iguanas into the state of Florida. The rapid population began in 1964 after a pet dealer made the mistake of releasing roughly 300 iguanas in the Miami area. Additional pet owners and cargo ships contributed to the growing numbers.
Fortunately, Florida has taken legal action to reduce the iguana population, such as requiring a permit to own tegus and iguanas.
How Did Iguanas Get To Florida?
Iguanas, especially green iguanas, are native to Central and South America, and the Caribbean, with a territory ranging from Mexico to southern Brazil and Paraguay.
Iguanas are tropical reptiles, meaning they require hot and humid jungles to thrive. However, iguanas have more recently called a new place home, the American state of Florida.
But, just how and why did these relatively small animals end up in Florida from as far away as the southern part of South America? Were they looking forward to the American dream and the idea of freedom, or perhaps, the whole thing was just an accident.
The very first iguana ever to be documented in Florida was not the infamous green iguana which most people keep as pets. It was actually the brown anole (Anolis sagrei), which was likely imported via a cargo ship from Cuba in the late 1800’s.
Since then, multiple species of iguanas have been imported into Florida, none of which are native to the state.
Pet owners and pet shops have also been the culprits of rising iguana populations in Florida.
According to the University of Florida, in 1964 an exotic pet shop owner intentionally released about 300 green iguanas somewhere in the Miami area, likely giving rise to the surge in population, especially in peninsular Florida.
We can safely assume other pet owners have followed suit. Thus, contributing to the problem.
Hurricanes And Tropical Storms
So far, pet owners and cargo ships seem like a pretty logical explanation as to how iguanas ended up in Florida. However, our third culprit was no where near the top of my lists before writing this post.
Believe it or not, tropical storms and hurricanes are highly suspected to be responsible for displacing iguanas from the Caribbean Islands to Florida.
Don’t believe me? In October of 1998, the New York Times published a story of 15 iguanas which clung to waterlogged trees during a tropical storm, and travelled over two hundred miles from Guadeloupe to Anguilla.
Although storms are the least likely way for iguanas to get to Florida, they shouldn’t be ruled out.
Why Did Iguanas Survive In Florida?
Like all invasive species, iguanas were able to not only survive, but thrive in Florida thanks to three main factors.
Florida has a sub-tropical climate, with mild winters and year-round humid temperatures that rarely drop below sixty degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, Florida’s climate is as perfect as it’s going to get for iguanas who live north of the equator.
Lack Of Predators
With so many natural predators in Florida, it’s difficult to understand how iguanas became such a highly populated nuisance. In my opinion, iguanas’ explosive numbers are due to the fact that most the predators in the list below primarily target juvenile iguanas.
Once they reach adulthood, iguanas only have to really worry about hawks and snakes. Although feral pigs and alligators can easily take down an adult iguana, they’re unlikely to do so because catching the lizard is difficult to begin with.
Iguanas in Florida must be on the lookout for the following predators:
- Feral pigs
Abundance Of Food
As with all tropical and sub-tropical climates, Florida produces an abundance of vegetation. Iguanas are folivores, a type of herbivore that mainly consumes leaves, but will also gladly eat vegetables, fruits, and food left out for house pets.
Are Iguanas Currently Migrating To Florida?
Unfortunately, iguanas are still being imported into Florida, worsening the problem.
Although the Florida Fish And Wildlife Conservation Commission has issued a prohibition of green iguanas in the pet trade, the public continues to adopt and release these reptiles in the state.
Many uneducated pet owners are completely unaware of how large iguanas get once they reach adulthood, which tends to result in owners releasing their pet lizard in the wild.
How Is Florida Stopping Iguanas From Entering The State?
Recognizing that native plants and animals may be in harm’s way because of iguanas, Floridians wasted no time spurring into action.
Along with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission which requires permits to own iguanas or tegus as pets, policy makers passed legislation which states that releasing iguanas in the state is illegal.
Why Florida Doesn’t Want More Iguanas
Like all non-native species, green iguanas have significant advantages which negatively affect the delicate balance in the ecosystem between food, prey, and predator, but it doesn’t stop there.
The following include all the negative impacts on Florida by iguanas.
- Damage to crops and gardens via eating and burrowing
- Damage to personal and public infrastructure via burrowing
- Physical harm for pets and people
- Potential extinction of certain plants and animals
- Spreading of disease (likely Salmonella) via feces or physical contact
- Burden on taxpayer money