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Combatting Invasive Species In Florida

Florida is home to more than 500 invasive species. Not all of these plants and animals are big and scary like pythons, but they can still harm the state’s native wildlife, and a lot of time and money is spent fighting them.

This week Florida Matters speaks with scientists on the front lines of this battle about how we’re doing.

Guests include:

John Humphrey, wildlife biologist with the USDA Natural Wildlife Research Center’s Florida Field Stationin Gainesville

Todd Campbell, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Tampa

They discuss efforts to reduce populations of argentine tegu lizards in the Riverview area and Nile monitor lizards in Cape Coral.

One recent update about the tegus, Todd Campbell said, is that his team found gopher tortoises in the stomachs of tegus they trapped. Gopher tortoises are a protected species that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission lists as Threatened.

We learn how some past efforts to control invasive species have backfired. Todd Campbell cited cane toads as an example.

These toads were introduced in sugar cane fields in the early 20th century to deal with an invasive pest. The populations wound up exploding and the toads are now a threat to native wildlife and household pets. 

We talk about some success stories the NWRC has had in Florida.

John Humphrey said members of his team helped to seemingly eradicate the population of sacred ibis, an exotic African bird, in South Florida after individuals escaped from the Miami Zoo during Hurricane Andrew. He said these nest predators haven’t been sighted in Florida for five years.

Humphrey noted that education about invasive species needs to improve so more people understand that it's not just pythons and poisonous toads that can threaten Florida's wildlife. Attractive animals like the purple swamphen, another exotic bird, can also pose a risk to native species.

Both Humphrey and Campbell stressed the importance of early detection and rapid response. They said only in the last couple decades did wildlife groups start taking a more proactive approach to controlling invasive species.

One result of this change was the creation of the invasive species hotline. People can call the hotline and report any sightings of plants or animals they believe may be invasive species about and wildlife experts can determine whether action needs to be taken.

The number is 1-888-IVEGOT1, or 1-888-483-4681.  There is a smartphone app for reporting as well.

Editor's note: We received the following letter after this post was published:

I just read your article and interview from April 16, 2019 about Combatting Invasive Species in Florida (https://wusfnews.wusf.usf.edu/post/combatting-invasive-species-florida)

I’m glad you took the time to raise some awareness about invasive species. I serve on the Steering Committee of the Everglades Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area and have been trying to correct an erroneous assumptive narrative that keeps getting perpetuated in the media. The introduction of sacred ibis into South Florida was not due to escaping from Zoo Miami (formerly Miami Metrozoo) during Hurricane Andrew. It is an assumption that was made because our main aviary was destroyed in Andrew and we had sacred ibis in our collection at the time. But, our main aviary, the Wings of Asia, concentrates on Asian species and the sacred ibis is an African species that was kept in a different area of the zoo. All of our sacred ibis were accounted for after Hurricane Andrew, have visual identification bands and are often pinioned so that they cannot fly. The sacred ibis that appeared after Hurricane Andrew probably did escape from private collections somewhere in South Florida.

We did, in fact, play a major role in the opposite by helping in the eradication of sacred ibis from South Florida in collaboration with John Humphrey and USDA Wildlife Services. You can find out more here: https://www.zoomiami.org/invasive-species-in-florida

I hope you would consider editing your story with the correction since we are often attributed to the cause of sacred ibis being introduced to South Florida while not recognizing that we actually played a leading role in one of the only successful eradication efforts of an invasive species in South Florida with our conservation programs.


Frank Ridgley DVM, Zoo Conservation and Veterinary Services Manager

Conservation and Research Department

Zoo Miami

Miami-Dade Co. Parks, Recreation & Open Spaces Dept.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
Robin Sussingham was Senior Editor at WUSF until September 2020.