Cerabino: Monitoring the lizard situation in Florida is a big job


A giant lizard has been terrorizing a family in South Florida for weeks.

The 6-foot-long monitor lizard has been an unwanted visitor on the back patio of Zachary Lieberman’s Davie home.

“It was right at my back window kind of scratching to get inside the house,” Lieberman told the Sun-Sentinel.

He took videos of it. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) sent somebody out there to try to catch it.

I’m not surprised. If you’ve lived in South Florida for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed by now that the lizards keep getting bigger and bigger.

When I first came here for a job interview in 1984, a tiny lizard jumped in my briefcase. I thought it was cute.

But those cute little lizards soon gave way to bigger, tougher lizards with curly tails, who ate up the little guys. Then the iguanas started showing up in my back yard, while out near the Everglades, the population of birds and small mammals was being decimated by the proliferation of giant Burmese pythons, snakes can grow as long as 16 feet.

So it makes sense that one day, a 6-foot lizard will come knocking at the door. The same warm, hospitable climate that brings so many exotic varieties of humans to South Florida also is hospitable to all levels of undesirable critters, that once established, find it easy to stay here and multiply.

The FWC has created an online site for Floridians to report sightings of invasive species in their midst. It’s called “Ive Got 1,” and can be accessed at Ivegot1.org

From the site you can access the Early Detection & Distribution Mapping System, which catalogs sightings of invasive plant, insect or animal species in the state — everything from giant Ghana tiger snails, to Chinese rose beetles to redroot pigweed.

The Nile monitor lizard is one of the 424 exotic species of wildlife that has become an unwelcomed Florida resident. It’s not a danger to humans, but it feeds on birds, fish and small animals, making them a potential predator to cats and dogs.

Two years ago, researchers published a comprehensive scientific study of the origin and spread of Nile monitor lizards in Florida. The study, published in the Royal Society Open Science Journal determined that the state had three separate breeding populations of Nile monitors.

The biggest is in Cape Coral in Southwest Florida, with an estimated population of about a thousand lizards. The next biggest is in Palm Beach County along the C-51 canal, just south of Southern Boulevard with “between 80 and 47 confirmed sightings,” followed by a smaller breeding population of monitors in southern Miami-Dade County at the Homestead Air Force Base.

The monitors were first spotted in Cape Coral sometime around 1990, and by doing DNA testing on 15 monitors living in Cape Coral, five in West Palm Beach and five in Homestead, scientists determined that 19 of them descended from a line of monitors that lived in a coastal region in West Africa southeast of the Niger River.

Scientists speculated that they may have come to Florida as exotic pets that were abandoned by their owners once they became too difficult to care for, or that they may have been intentionally released by reptile dealers in Florida “to establish a breeding population in which to capture individuals for resale, thus avoinding the coast of husbandry or international trade.”

With sexual maturity in two years and 60 eggs in a single clutch, it doesn’t take long for a wild population to multiply.

The FWC says that the monitor lizard at the Davie home is not the Nile monitor, but its similar-looking relative, the Asian water monitor lizard.

“There is no breeding population of that species in Florida,” said Carli Segelson, a habitat and species conservation specialist with the FWC.

At least not yet.



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