(photos by Inside Track Almanac)
Just the other day, my neighbor called me on the phone and said “look outside, near the lake- there’s something out there!” I thought, oh maybe a cool bird like a huge blue heron or a roseate spoonbill or some other animal that gets my blood pumping. And it did because it turned out to be a huge (I mean huge!) iguana. It looked to be at least four feet long, the largest I’ve ever personally observed in the wild in Florida. He wasn’t shy either, and if it hadn’t been for a family of ducks, which we’ll get to in a moment, he most likely would have continued posing happily for my camera and showing off for neighbors here in our quiet little Vero residential community.
The invasion of green iguanas in south Florida has been the subject of some amusing stories in the recent past. The moment the temperature drops into the low 40’s, which is practically apocalyptic further south, you can expect a barrage of “Falling Iguanas” headlines and news stories with humorous photos and videos of the animals falling out of trees- like a reptilian hail storm. They’re not dead, they just go dormant in low temperatures and pretty much pass out until they warm up. This has become so common that last year it even prompted an “unofficial” yet official warning from The National Weather Service in Miami accompanied by a graphic that rivals even the most viral comedic memes.
Then there was the firearms fiasco. Green iguanas are not protected in Florida except by anti-cruelty laws. They’ve become such a nuisance in parts of the state that in July 2019, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission advised property owners to exterminate them. So, some people went out and started shooting them, forcing FWC to issue this clarification statement:
“Unfortunately, the message has been conveyed that we are asking the public to just go out there and shoot them up. This is not what we are about; this is not the ‘Wild West.’ If you are not capable of safely removing iguanas from your property, please seek assistance from professionals who do this for a living,” FWC Commissioner Rodney Barreto said.
More hilarious headlines followed: “You Can Kill Iguanas In Florida, Just Don't Shoot Them!” and “Florida Man Hunting Iguanas Shoots Pool Maintenance Man.” It’s worth noting that it was a pellet gun and the pool guy recovered quickly.
But iguanas are not aggressive or harmful to humans or pets (except if one falls on your head on a cold day but, technically that’s not the iguana’s fault). In fact, this one happened to be hanging out near a family of ducks and apparently a little too close for comfort. These ducks decided they’d had enough and chased him up a nearby oak tree. Imagine being “treed” by a duck!
Kidding aside, green iguanas are non-native and considered invasive in Florida. They’re mainly herbivores with a big appetite for ornamental shrubbery and native plants but they also go after food sources that can create competition for native species, upsetting further the precarious and delicate balance of Florida ecosystems. They’re not opposed to an occasional meal of bird or turtle eggs and, in parts of the state, they’ve been known to kick endangered owls out of their burrows and eat their eggs.
Additionally, they can dig long, interconnected tunnels, up to 80 feet which can cause considerable damage to infrastructure including sea walls, foundations, sidewalks, drainage pipes and even highway overpasses. Their numbers have exploded in southern counties to the point where local officials have transitioned from removal strategy to mitigation tactics and property owners are struggling to control the problem. One Broward County golf course owner told a local paper in an interview: “You can drive up in a golf cart to a putting green and there can be up to 40 iguanas running away. It’s like Jurassic Park.”
Green iguanas hail from Central America, parts of South America and some eastern Caribbean islands. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC), they were first reported in Florida in the 1960s in Hialeah, Coral Gables and Key Biscayne along Miami-Dade County’s southeastern coast. Their populations now stretch along the Atlantic Coast in Broward, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach Counties and along the Gulf Coast in Collier and Lee Counties. There have also been reports as far north as Alachua, Highlands, Hillsborough, Indian River and St. Lucie Counties.
But they aren’t likely to flourish on the Treasure Coast. Officials say that most of the individuals observed here are believed to be escapees or abandoned pets which are not very successful in breeding and establishing any significant population. That, coupled with our cooler weather and sufficiently frequent cold snaps, is likely to spare us from the iguana “affliction” going on further south. Spending some time around this fascinating creature was fun but I am a good Florida citizen and so I did my duty as such and report the animal’s presence to FWC. Reporting observations helps the state manage non-native species and may be done in a variety of ways including online and via smart phone apps. Learn more about it here.