How many exotic animals live near you? | ECOVIEWS

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The western green lizard, a large, brightly colored lizard native to Europe, thrives in Topeka, Kansas, where it was introduced through the pet trade a half century ago. [Photo courtesy Suzanne L. Collins]
The western green lizard, a large, brightly colored lizard native to Europe, thrives in Topeka, Kansas, where it was introduced through the pet trade a half century ago. [Photo courtesy Suzanne L. Collins]

Some of our native animals are now outnumbered by species from other countries. The release of animals from other lands has become a nationwide phenomenon. Some have established breeding populations and can pose a problem as predators or competitors to native fauna.

In Florida, more than 50 kinds of lizards now thrive in the state. The problem: only 17  are native, meaning approximately two-thirds of this notable taxonomic group are exotics that do not belong there naturally.

A fascinating new book on the topic, “Exotic Amphibians and Reptiles of the United States” (University Press of Florida. 2022) by Walt Meshaka, Suzanne Collins, Bruce Bury and Malcolm McCallum, provides the status of more than 100 introduced species.

The authors define an exotic species as a nonnative species that has ended up in a given area with help from humans. Of the exotic amphibians and reptiles discussed in the book, 74 came from outside the continental United States. Twenty-nine are species native to one part of the country that have been accidentally or intentionally released into another region where they qualify as exotic.

The book is impressive for its ecological information about exotics and the many beautiful photographs.

Numbers of exotic amphibians, turtles and snakes are low compared to lizards, many of which are colorful species prized by the commercial pet trade. In the U.S. more than 20 kinds of geckos and 10 anoles have been introduced. Most are in Florida, which has 60 exotic species of amphibians and reptiles. Hawai’i comes in second place with 30. No other states reach such high numbers, but most states have at least one.

A species of amphibian or reptile may be exotic but not invasive, which implies having a negative environmental effect on native animals.

For example, Mediterranean geckos, greenhouse frogs from Cuba and the worm-size Brahminy blind snakes from Asia are unlikely to create problems for any native species.

Other species may even be viewed positively. Many lizards are strikingly colored, with the males displaying breeding colors that rival those of birds. Some species, however, have had severe detrimental impacts. Examples include large South American tegu lizards now found in Alabama and Georgia, Burmese pythons in southern Florida and bullfrogs in the western United States, far outside their natural range in the eastern states.

A key source of exotic reptiles, especially snakes and lizards, into areas outside their natural range can be traced back to their commercial sale as pets. Animals escape from pet stores and pet owners constantly.

In addition, although it is illegal in many states to release a nonnative animal into the wild, people often do so anyway. When a baby turtle outgrows its bowl or a pet owner moves and can’t take her ball python with her or a couple decides their new baby and the 3-foot-long monitor lizard are not a good mix, out the door goes the pet.

Most pet owners face a dilemma. They know that releasing an exotic animal into the wild is wrong. But if they cannot persuade a friend or a nature center to take the animal, they feel that they have no other choice. If the habitat where the animal is let go happens to be compatible for its survival, it may persist. And if both sexes are in the area, reproduction is likely. The result: exotic animals are now living in many places where they do not belong.

Wherever you live, an exotic animal could become part of your neighborhood. If you live where reptiles and amphibians flourish, exotics may already be present. You might want to learn what those living in your area look like.

Readers will find “Exotic Amphibians and Reptiles of the United States” highly informative about current and potential exotic species. The state maps delineate counties, making it easy to determine where a species is likely to be found.

Whit Gibbons is professor of zoology and senior biologist at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. If you have an environmental question or comment, email ecoviews@gmail.com.

Whit Gibbons
Whit Gibbons

This article originally appeared on The Tuscaloosa News: How many exotic animals live near you? | ECOVIEWS