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Floridians Wrestle With the Blight of the Iguana

The wily lizards are just one more example of 'exotics' gone wild in the Sunshine State.

August 18, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — If this were a tabloid newspaper, the headline might scream: Hungry Giant Lizards Invade Florida Towns!

"They eat the flowers, [go] in the pool and mess it up," complained Ralph Lindberg, manager of the Commodore Club South, a group of condominiums on this exclusive, palm-fringed island south of Miami. "You try to chase them, but they live in the tops of palm trees, or in holes in the ground."

In neighborhoods from Key Biscayne to Boca Raton, it is the night, and day, of the fearsome-looking iguana. Escaped from captivity, or turned loose in the wild by pet owners, the large, usually green-skinned reptiles that can reach 6 feet in length are multiplying rapidly.

Native to Central and South America, the voracious, fleet-footed iguana has no natural enemies in the suburbs of South Florida.

Colonies of the big lizards now inhabit a Fort Lauderdale park, some of the most select communities of Palm Beach County and islets of the Florida Keys. At Fairchild Tropical Gardens, which claims to be the largest botanical garden in the continental United States, the blossom-munching creatures have, like a biblical cloud of locusts, wolfed down rare, exotic plants.

"They tear apart hibiscus, impatiens," said Kevin M. Kirwin, manager of Crandon Park, a 975-acre recreational facility on Key Biscayne where more than 1,000 iguanas are believed to live. "They go chuck, chuck, chuck," said Kirwin, mimicking their machine-gun-like chomp.

Iguanas, larger than any lizard found naturally in the United States, have the fierce mien of miniature dinosaurs. They are herbivorous, however, and are believed to present no risk to humans beyond the salmonella bacteria they carry and may transmit if handled.

The evident explosion in their numbers is just one more instance of the headaches created in Florida by "exotics," that is, nonnative species of plants and animals that have gotten loose and found the lush, subtropical setting as much to their liking as humans have.

In recent years, giant pythons have been spotted slithering through the Everglades. A non-American species of fern imported by florists as an ornamental is devastating tree islands in a wildlife preserve west of Boca Raton. In Cape Coral on Florida's Gulf Coast, carnivorous Nile monitor lizards, an African species that can grow almost as big as iguanas, may already number in the thousands, and could endanger the local population of burrowing owls.

In the Miami area, at least 40 nonnative species of reptiles and amphibians can be found, often feasting on native species and reducing their numbers, said Josiah Townsend, a herpetologist from the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. Among the intruders, iguanas are some of the most successful. A female, on average, lays 50 papery-skinned eggs at a time, and may breed twice a year. With no natural predators to keep their numbers in check, the reptiles appear to be thriving.

"Once they're in, there is no way to get them out, except doing things we cannot do, like chemical warfare," Kirwin said. In theory, a good, long cold snap should kill the iguanas, and a drop in temperatures last winter did thin their numbers, Crandon Park's director said. But the lizards learned that if they stayed in water, they had a better chance of keeping warm, he said.

At Ocean Village Condominiums near the park, hordes of iguanas coming over the fence have devoured the hibiscus bushes and fouled the grounds with excrement. Employees put out cages to trap them, but the reptiles quickly became wise to the danger and avoided them.

"We try to capture them. The biggest one we've caught was 5 feet, 4 inches," said Jim Dowd, manager of the four-story, 140-unit complex. "If you met that guy in an alley, you would be pretty scared. They might whip you with their tails."

At one point, Dowd hired a trapper but said the fast-running lizards managed to elude him. On occasion, he says, his groundskeepers use a pole to knock a roosting iguana off of its perch in a tree, then kill it with poles on the ground.

"They defecate, and it smells bad and is unhealthy," the condo manager said. "I have lost a lot of foliage to them." But despite having to cope with what he calls a "big, bad nuisance," Dowd speaks of the animals with something akin to awe.

"The iguanas have the knowledge of millions of years stored in their computers. It's in their brains. I'm always amazed by them," he said.

Townsend, a 25-year-old herpetologist from Miami, has also grown to respect the lizards' keen intelligence. This summer, he has gone specimen-trapping in South Florida, and found the iguanas living at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, at the southern tip of Key Biscayne, have learned not only to recognize a fellow trapper's voice, but the truck she drives and the uniform she wears as well.

"They flee once they've figured out what you're doing," Townsend said.

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