There have been a lot of plants and animals introduced to Florida (and to many other places, for that matter) and many of these introductions have changed the ecosystem where they now live.
First, it is important to understand the terminology related to the introduction of a species. An introduction is when an organism is intentionally or accidentally released into a habitat where it is not native (or where it previously has not lived). Often the organism is not able to survive because of a variety of reasons. These could include that there is not appropriate food or habitat or perhaps there are predators that quickly out compete or eat the non-native species. Also, if only one individual is released (provided it is not a pregnant female), the individual may not find a mate and will not reproduce to produce future generations. If an organism can become establish and thrive it may become invasive. This is when an organism begins to take over and out compete native species, causing changes, often detrimental, to the environment.
Many organisms have been released into the natural environment of Florida. I am going to tell you about two different reptiles, the reticulated python and the Nile monitor.
One example of an animal that has been introduced to Florida and has taken hold is the reticulated python (Python reticulata). Reticulated pythons are native to the Old World and can reach lengths of up to thirty feet! This is the longest recorded snake! Pythons are constrictors, meaning that they bite their food and then wrap their bodies around the prey item to slowly suffocate it to death before consumption. At least two breeding populations the python are now established in Florida. People who initially adopted them as pets introduced the snakes. As the snakes grow larger they become aggressive and difficult to handle. People are unsure what to do with the snake and at times they simply release it into the wild. Florida has similar habitat and temperatures to where reticulated pythons are native. Therefore, the snakes have been able to thrive and reproduce, thus increase the numbers from a few released snakes to sustainable populations in a relatively short period of time.
Reticulated pythons are very large snakes that do not have native predators in Florida, even as juveniles. They are feeding on native rodents and other mammals, including pets like dogs and cats. They are out competing native snakes and other animals for habitat and food. Furthermore, these very large snakes can be dangerous to humans because they are aggressive. They do not have venom, but their bite can be very painful and they do constrictor their prey items. Although it is unlikely for the snake to consume a human, a painful bite and constriction can cause serious injury or perhaps even death.
Nile monitors (Varanus niloticus) are large lizards that are in the same family as Komodo Dragons (Varanus komodoensis). Although Nile monitors are smaller than some of their relatives, they are aggressive and voracious eaters.
Nile monitors are native to Africa where they feed on rodents. The climate and habitat in Florida has permitted these lizards to survive in the wild. Again, Nile monitors found their way to the wilds through release from pet owners. The monitors grow larger and become more aggressive and people find that they no longer can or want to care for them. The lizards are sometimes released into the wild and they have been able to thrive in Florida.
The monitors are consuming the native rodents, such as rats and mice, and are out competing other animals that feed on rodents. Also, they are aggressive towards humans and other animals (including pets like dogs and cats) and are forced to interact with humans in parks and even in the residential areas of Florida.
The introduction of all different types of organisms into places like Florida has greatly changed the natural environment. Native organisms have been reduced in number and may have even had population or whole species extinctions. Many of the animals that have survived in the wilds of Florida are aggressive, thus helping them to thrive. When interactions between the introduced organism and humans, especially small children, occur accidents or injuries can happen. Efforts are being made to capture and remove reticulated pythons and Nile monitors from the natural environment of Florida where they are not native.
Introductions, and especially invasions, are changing the ecosystems in many negative ways. Management and conservation efforts are being modified regularly to help stop such introduction. Pet owners must be educated before making a purchase and then be responsible to find a new home for an unwanted pet. If you are considing a pet like a reticulated python or a Nile monitor, first check to see if it is even legal in your area. Then, thoroughly research the needs of the animal. Finally, have a plan of how you can remove the pet from your home, if needed. We must do everything we can protect our natural environment and humans have the ability to make positive decisions and changes.
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