Florida might very well be the most terrifying place in North America, and that's only partially because of the crazy crime stories and enormous alligators that inhabit the state's swamps. The Everglades National Park is one of the country's greatest natural treasures, but a surge of invasive species in Florida is quietly turning the beloved park into a nightmare.
If you haven't been following the slow destruction of the Everglades, things aren't looking good for America's favorite swamp. Invasive species in the Florida Everglades are wreaking all sorts of havoc on the environment. Human introduced predators, including massive pythons, are experiencing a population boom that is threatening the Everglades' native animals. Even invasive plants are starting to move in and cause issues for the local flora, so no Florida species is safe. Without a significant and concentrated effort to eradicate these invasive pests, the ecology of America's most diverse environment may be irreversibly altered.
Many of the species that are now plaguing the Everglades were first brought to Florida as exotic pets. While not all exotic pets are illegal to own, irresponsible pet owners are causing major issues for Florida's swamps. One of the most successful invasive species is the Burmese python, a massive constrictor that is typically found in Southeast Asia. While these animals are completely legal to own, they often grow to ridiculous lengths and become too much for their owners to handle.
Bad owners have started sneaking their pythons into the park and releasing them into the wild, which is one of the main reasons that python populations are booming in the Everglades. Unfortunately, these pythons are far from the only exotic pets gaining a foothold in the swamp.
Pythons are no joke. They can grow up to 23 feet long and have powerful muscles that can squeeze the life out of a full grown adult. But in Florida, hunters are coming by the hundreds in order to help eradicate this invasive species. Some estimates put the number of invasive pythons in the Everglades as high as 150,000, a staggering number that will take years to cull.
To combat these pesky serpents, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013 endorsed a massive snake hunt called the Python Challenge. Hunters from around the country were encouraged to come to the Everglades and round up as many pythons as they could. There was even a prize of $1,500 to the team who managed to capture the most pythons. Roughly 1,500 people came to the Everglades to participate in the hunt, but only about 50 snakes were captured in total. Now, the Python Challenge has been extended to 60 days and recruits hunters to go after the pythons. Local businesses that specialize in python removal are also starting to pop up in the area, as it seems like python season isn't coming to an end anytime soon.
While pythons seem to be getting all the press, it's a different type of reptile that is wiping out nests throughout the Everglades. Tegus, a type of lizard found primarily in South America, are another exotic type of pet making its home in the swamps of Florida. Some species of these massive lizards can grow up to four feet in length, and they are gorging themselves on the eggs of native species. Tegus will eat basically anything they can swallow, and they have been targeting the nests of alligators, sea turtles, and some bird species.
Tegus reproduce in batches, with one female laying up to 30 eggs at a time. The number of tegus currently in the Everglades is likely in the tens of thousands. One tegu hunter has bagged roughly 1,600 of these little guys completely on his own, and he's convinced that he's barely scratching the surface of the tegu population.
The Everglades are huge, and the national park only encompasses a small amount of these swamps. Everglades National Park only represents about a fifth of the entire area of the swamp, meaning that the rest of it is open to commercial development. The Everglades have been shrinking for nearly a century now, with over half of its surface area eradicated in just the last 100 years. This has been devastating for the native animal population, many of whom are seeing steep declines in numbers due to a loss of habit conflated with a number of other problems.