Lawmakers fighting to control uninvited pests

First observed in Florida in 1976, African redhead agamas were introduced to the state via the exotic pet trade. The agamas compete with the native green anole for food and habitat.

Bad enough Florida has giant snakes that eat everything. But now, wildlife managers also are facing explosions of the African redhead agama, or “rainbow lizard,” first spotted in South Florida but also known to go as far north as Duval County. And the emergence this month of the Asian giant hornet, or “murder hornet,” out West became a national curiosity. It hasn’t hit Florida, but fear and hysteria over the “murder hornet” could threaten beneficial native insects. Florida is the most vulnerable state to invasive species threats, and the animals and plants that don’t belong continue to wreak expensive ecological havoc on the state. It costs at least $500 million annually for Florida to manage invasive species, according to a joint report from the National Park Service and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

That’s a large share of a high national cost — $127 billion per year for nationwide management efforts, according to a 2017 Congressional Research Service report.

And the problem persists despite all management efforts because warming temperatures are causing the species that establish here to migrate north, said Josh Grau, vice president of the environmental group Ending Non-Native Destructive Species (ENNDS).

Taking action nationally

Fortunately, stopping invasive species in Florida is an issue gaining more national ground.

It now has the attention of Florida’s U.S. senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, who teamed up to introduce the SLITHER Act (SLITHER short for “Suppressing Looming Invasive Threats Harming Everglades Restoration”).

Their legislation, included in the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2020, aims to combat significant threats to biodiversity in South Florida, including Burmese pythons and giant lizards like the Argentine tegus and Nile monitors.

“Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Senate is taking important steps to protect and improve Florida’s ecosystems,” Rubio said in a statement.

Burmese pythons, native to Southeast Asia, are giant snakes known to compete with native predators for food and habitat, and eat many imperiled animals critical to the Everglades ecosystem, according to the Everglades Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area.

They can even eat large animals like alligators and deer.

It’s hard to hunt them down because of how they camouflage themselves within the grasses of the Everglades, and hard to manage their populations because a single female Burmese python may lay from 50 to 100 eggs at once, according to FWC.

“We’ve successfully fought to fund projects that preserve and protect our Everglades, but this progress is threatened by invasive species,” Scott said in a tweet.

The America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2020, including the SLITHER Act, was referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. A hearing date for the legislation hasn’t been set yet.

The SLITHER Act isn’t the first time the issue of invasive species in the Everglades received national attention this year.

In January, FWC and the South Florida Water Management District co-organized a Burmese python hunt with the Miami Super Bowl Host Committee called the Python Bowl, which tied in with Miami’s hosting of the Super Bowl.

Hunters captured and removed 80 pythons during the 10-day challenge, according to FWC.

Battling emerging threats

Despite legislative actions and species removal challenges, it’s hard to keep up with established and up-and-coming invaders.

Recently, South Florida residents started noticing an explosion of African redhead agamas, also known as “rainbow lizards” because of their red-orange heads, dark blue bodies and multicolored tails.

Agamas aren’t new to Florida — FWC first observed them in 1976, introduced via the exotic pet trade — but their population growth is, said Grau, of ENNDS.

During a phone call with a Daily Sun reporter, Grau noticed five agamas roaming in his yard.

“We went from seeing one or two sporadically to, I have 20 or 30 that live in my yard all the time,” he said. “When we first started seeing them, we could manage them.”

Agama sightings were confirmed in 27 Florida counties, with the most reported in Martin, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, according to the Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System, a project of the University of Georgia that tracks invasive species nationwide.

Only two sightings occurred in the tri-county area, one in 2014 in Marion County and another in 2017 in Lake County, the data showed.

Grau thinks the agamas, as well as the giant, cold-resistant tegu lizards, are proliferating in greater numbers today because of warmer winters in recent years.

“We’re not getting the frosts that we would before,” he said.

The problem with African redhead agamas is that they compete with the native green anole for food and habitat, Grau said.

And green anole populations already are suffering because of competition from another invasive lizard, the Cuban brown anole, he said.

Jim Davis, director of the University of Florida’s Sumter County Extension Office, listed brown anoles as one of the invasive species Villagers may encounter in the tri-county area.

Other local threats include red imported fire ants, Africanized bees and feral hogs.

The displacement of native species is one of the reasons invasives damage Florida’s environment, Davis said.

“Some carry diseases,” he said. “They can eat anything, even each other. Look at feral hogs, they disturb the ground with all the digging they do, it looks bad and it could prevent the growth of native plants. It could introduce weeds, and fire ants love those.”

Not every nuisance animal Florida is tracking crawls on the ground.

Others fly and sting.

The Asian giant hornet, which was recently found in Washington state and gained national attention for its nickname “murder hornet,” are known to prey on honeybees at the entrances of their hives, according to Amy Vu and Jamie Ellis of UF’s Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory.

Up close, the hornet has a large orange-red and yellow head with prominent black eyes.

But it easily can be confused for other beneficial insects like the European hornet, cicada killer and baldface hornet, which are pollinator species and function as a biological control for nuisance species in the environment, Vu said.

“When you look at them up close, you can see the difference,” she said. “But when you see them outside, it’s a different story.”

Entomologists worry that people may misidentify beneficial insects as the “murder hornet” and kill them if they see them.

But they shouldn’t be a worry to Floridians at the moment, as Vu and Ellis stated they haven’t been found anywhere in the U.S. outside of Washington state.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or