green iguana (bijgesneden)

Florida’s failing biosecurity threatens Caribbean reptiles

Wageningen Marine Research
13-JUN-2023 - Florida is a hotspot for non-native species including many reptiles, which are spreading unchecked to the Caribbean. The Peters’s rock agama, a lizard native to sub-Saharan Africa, is among the latest species to spread from Florida to the Caribbean islands. Conservationists are expressing their fear for the impacts of this non-native species in a public letter.

Peters's rock agama in Florida. Adult males have a red head and tailFlorida is widely known to be a hotbed of invasive alien species, including many non-native reptiles from around the world. It is not uncommon to see new reports about green iguanas – a species from Central America – falling from the trees during cold spells. Or large pythons from Asia preying on native deer and alligators in the Everglades. There are many other aliens that receive far less attention, yet are no less dangerous.

Among the most insidious aliens is the Peters’s rock agama – Agama picticauda – a reptile native to western and central Sub-Saharan Africa. This colourful lizard first arrived in Florida in the 1970s and has since spread across the Sunshine State, preying on a wide range of small animals.

New citizen science reports show this species has now reached the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands, undoubtedly carried as stowaways on vessels out of Florida. A group of Caribbean-based biologists and conservationists are now expressing their deep concern because this region is a biodiversity hotspot with thousands of unique, endemic species, over 1,500 of which are already at high risk of extinction. Other undesirable aliens that are inferred to have spread to the Caribbean via Florida in recent years include green iguanas (Iguana iguana), black spiny-tailed iguanas (Ctenosaura similis) and Asian house geckos (Hemidactylus frenatus).

Peters's Rock Agama in Florida

In their letter to the journal Animal Conservation, co-authored by Dolfi Debrot from Wageningen Marine Research, the authors identify nearly 50 native reptile species that could be impacted if Peters's rock agama becomes established across the Eastern Caribbean. Many species are at risk of being eaten by the agamas and even large native lizards are likely to experience competition and displacement given the agama’s aggressive behaviours.

The authors advise scientists, conservationists, policy makers, veterinarians and border control agencies to be on high alert for incursions by Peters’s rock agamas and other non-native reptiles. They further urge the transport sector – especially those operating out of Florida – to be on the lookout for the agama and to take swift measures to remove them.

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Text: Wageningen Marine Research
Photos: Hans Smulders (lead picture: green iguana); Vijay Barve, iNaturalist; John Wolaver, iNaturalist