Disappearing Florida – The Invaders

Brazilian Pepper

Brazilian Pepper

One of the early blogs I posted on this site was posted after a Florida Naturalist field trip within the St. Martins’ Preserve. I had heard about “invasive species” of plants and animals, but what I heard went in one ear and out the other. After the November 2009 field trip, I wrote the blog, titled “Some Invasions We Should Worry About Are Not From Outer Space.

The picture of the Brazilian Pepper was used and the blog was short:

The Brazilian Pepper Tree is from South America. The Brazilian Pepper was brought into Florida as an ornament, a plant that made a nice decoration. But its introduction into our environment found it out of sorts with the requirements of nature. The Brazilian Pepper is one of the most aggressive and wide-spread of the invasive non-indigenous exotic pest plants in Florida. There are over 700,000 acres in Florida infested with the Brazilian Pepper Tree. The Brazilian Pepper Tree produces a dense canopy that shades out all other plants and provides a very poor habitat for native species. This species invades aquatic as well as terrestrial habitats, greatly reducing the quality of native biotic communities in the state. The point: our environment is sensitive and has maintained a delicate balance that has been in process for eons. When a foreign plant or an animal is introduced into a new environment, it is an “exotic,” it has no predators, or checks and balances. What starts out as pretty becomes unnecessarily destructive. The Brazilian Pepper Tree in the photograph is out of sorts with its environment on Florida’s Nature Coast, where this picture was taken. What looks pretty in our windows is destructive in our environment.

Everglades Gator - A Python-Endangered Specie?

Everglades Gator – A Python-Endangered Specie?

However, at the time of our field trip I had not fully grasped the extent, or the damage, caused by invasive, exotic species of plants and animals. I now understand, as the Water Encyclopedia reports, that “once introduced, exotic or nonindigenous species are separated from the predators, parasites, and diseases that kept them in balance in their native environments. With such controls lost or diminished, the species often become pests, some to the extent that they injure ecosystems and cause economic damage. In addition, some species have adaptations that allow them to overtake and possibly displace resident species. Exotic species that cause these negative impacts can be described as nuisance, injurious, or invasive, depending on the general degree of harm.“

A recent report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission indicates that Florida has become the “home” for over 500 non-native fish and wildlife species and over 1,100 non-native plant species. The Commission states, “Thousands of nonnative species, mostly insects and agricultural pests, have been introduced into Florida and more arrive each day. As many as 40 exotic agricultural pests arrive here each month.” In 2000, Florida Power and Light estimated that Florida spent in excess of $90 million in its attempts to control exotic plant, animal and insect invasions.

An example: In the not too distant past, a few folks imported Burmese Pythons as pets. Uncomfortable with a 20-foot long killer snake from Southeast Asia, the snakes were “released” into the environment. It didn’t take long for the Pythons to establish breeding colonies in the Everglades.

Corkscrew Swamp Raccoon — food for the Python?

Corkscrew Swamp Raccoon — food for the Python?

Science Daily reports that the Pythons now threaten a third of the United States. The report states:

“Wildlife managers are concerned that these snakes, which can grow to over 20 feet long and more than 250 pounds, pose a danger to state- and federally listed threatened and endangered species as well as to humans,” said Bob Reed, a USGS wildlife biologist at the Fort Collins Science Center in Colorado, who helped develop the maps. “Several endangered species,” he noted, “have already been found in the snakes’ stomachs. Pythons could have even more significant environmental and economic consequences if they were to spread from Florida to other states.”

A further report from Audubon of Florida:

“Human activity is moving species around the world at unprecedented rates. Whether plant or animal, species arriving in new regions often become very important in ecosystem interactions in their new environment, often at the expense of the native organisms. Animal invaders can cause problems through predation, grazing, competition and/or habitat alteration, while plant invaders can alter fire regimes, nutrient movement, hydrology, energy budgets, greatly diminish abundance or survival of native plants, block navigation and even enhance flooding. Both plant and animal invaders may, under some circumstances, hybridize with closely related native species. Hybridization not only threatens the genetic integrity of the native species, but also can change a species’ characteristics. Two different species of salt cedar trees. introduced to the western United States appear to have hybridized and created an even more invasive tree than either of the parent stock. Disease organisms and parasitescan be invaders as well. Indeed, many of the principle pests on agriculture crops in temperate regions (most of North America) are exotic. In Florida, all of these effects seem to have occurred.”

On March 23, 2010, Scott Hardin, Exotic Species Coordinator, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, testified to a Florida Joint Oversight Subcommittee:

“For decades, Florida has been the destination of countless roadside zoos, traveling circuses, and other tourist attractions featuring exotic animal exhibits. This led to the development of a substantial industry dealing with the culture and exhibition of non-native species. Fueled by Florida’s subtropical climate and a burgeoning tourist industry, the captive wildlife trade has evolved into a multi-million dollar industry with nearly 4000 facilities holding regulated wildlife species, ranging from tropical fishes to exotic birds, and, of course, non-native constrictors. Not surprisingly, exotic pets are very popular and are in the possession of many Floridians throughout the state. … The Burmese python population in south Florida covers roughly 2000 square miles, with the core population in Everglades National Park and surrounding lands, including South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) property, and Big Cypress National Preserve. Understandably Everglades National Park and the SFWMD have assumed principal roles in monitoring, research and development, and control activities. The Commission has supplemented this effort by aggressively implementing programs on our managed lands to limit the spread of pythons from the core area. … Florida’s citizens are ethnically diverse, particularly in the southern part of the state where most non-native species have been observed. Many of Florida’s recent residents are unaware of the legal and cultural issues of non-native wildlife. The Commission has begun to reach out to the next generation of Floridians by incorporating age-appropriate exotic species activities in the classroom using the long-established Project WILD program. We hope to instill a conservation ethic, including respect for native species, in Floridians whose parents have come from all over the world. … We propose [that] … Species found likely to cause adverse ecological or economic impacts at the national level would be candidates for Injurious Wildlife listing under the Lacey Act and prohibited from importation or interstate shipment. Species with high risk of impact at the state or regional level would fall under state-based restrictions. Significantly, interstate shipments violating such state laws would be subject to federal prosecution under the Lacey Act, bringing into play the significant deterrent value of this legislation.”

In an age where we are experiencing a strong movement to minimize governmental regulation of any kind, there remains a stronger, important ecological need to control invasive species, plants and animals. Will we succeed?

From January 14, 2011 through March 13, 2011, the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, will have an important exhibition, Disappearing Florida. I will be privileged to be a participating photo-artist along with Carlton Ward, Jr., Kevin Boldenow, and Laurie Excell. Week-long photography courses will also be taught by Laurie Excell and Joel Sartore of the National Geographic Society, author of Rare, a book about disappearing species. This is the eighth in our series Disappearing Florida.

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Both Donna and I have thoroughly enjoyed your blog….so very professional amazing photos and thought provoking commentary…thanks for including us. Michael P


This is the first I had time to read your work. Impressively written dominated my open mouth, “holy shit” attitude as I read your research. Most captivating was your rhetoric. Your sentence structure and verbiage kept me focused, even though I’m a long way from being a “tree hugger”.

Your photos are true art. The story of the photo jumps out at me. Magnificent!

Your Faithful Servant,


Hi Richard,

Hope everything is OK with you. I must tell you, I really enjoy your Blog and look forward to reading them. I remember the day we saw the Brazilian Pepper.

I hate to tell you, but right now the general consensus seems to be that all government is bad. What a real shame. As for Brazilian pepper, another interesting fact about it is that it is closely related to poison ivy . . . and so poison ivy sufferers develop much the same nasty rashes from Brazilian pepper as they do from poison ivy and poison oak. The other interesting tidbit of information is that the Univ. of GA in Athens, has a very controlled experiment with Burmese pythons to see how they make do in the climate there –… Read more »

Amazing! I love it! Julie