Snow in Florida: Big chill culling unwanted iguanas and pythons

The more pythons gone the better, says a Florida wildlife official. But snow and unusual cold are also straining survival of native species like sea turtles and snook in the tropical Sunshine State.

By , Staff writer

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    Manatees gather in the warm water discharged from the Florida Power and Light Riviera Beach power plant into the Intracoastal Waterway. The cold weather has threatened native species like manatees and turtles.
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An extended cold stretch gave way Saturday to what early Floridians called an “extraordinary white rain” – snow to the rest of us – as state wildlife biologists reported frozen iguanas falling out of trees, shallow water fish like snook dying in droves, and a record number of rare sea turtles facing the reptile version of hypothermia in St. Joseph Bay and the Mosquito Lagoon area.

The rare snow fall – only the 17th such event in modern history to ever hit the state in January – only highlighted the unusually long-lasting dip of Arctic air and its impact on both native and invasive species in the largely tropical landmass draping off the southern United States.

“A cold-stunning event of this magnitude is very infrequent,” says Jim Squires, general manager of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island, which has taken in 10 cold-stunned sea turtles from Florida in recent days.

Hundreds of turtles rescued

Turtle rescuers worked around the clock, gathering over 700 passed-out turtles by Saturday and putting them in heated tanks at zoos and wildlife centers around the region to revive.

But if the extended cold threatened rare native species like turtles and the Florida manatee, it may also function as nature’s way of targeting invasive species that Florida wildlife officials, frankly, want to see gone from the state, and which have been causing a political stink for years.

In fact, the cold has given wildlife officials backup in their fight against two species that came uninvited to Florida: the green iguana and the Burmese python.

Officials have one message to residents who feel sorry for frozen-stiff iguanas: Don’t try to rescue them by wrapping them in towels and bringing them inside. (As “iguana girl” does.)

“We have calls coming in about iguanas dropping from trees and landing on people’s windshields … [but] the best thing to do with the iguanas is let nature take its course, since it’s the only way to help control this population,” says Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Gabriella Ferraro, adding that the iguanas “shouldn’t even be here.”

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Python explosion in the Everglades

Florida’s big chill also plays into one of the biggest Florida stories last year: The controversy over the explosion of the Burmese python in and around Everglades National Park, and whether it should lead to a national ban on some exotic pets.

After Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D) brought a massive python hide to Congress to highlight the up to 150,000 large non-native snakes plying the swamps and threatening the ecosystem and even humans, the state last summer introduced its first-ever python bounty hunt, which has had limited success in pushing back the extremely reclusive and hard-to-find snakes. (Read a Monitor article about the python bounty hunt here.)

But Friday the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission put out a press release urging hunters to use the cold to help them find the pythons. The animals are likely to be forced by the cold to come out of their hiding places and find sunny spots – along roads and levees – to bask.

Snake hunting authorized

The release reads: “All properly licensed and permitted hunters have the authority, if they wish, to harvest pythons and other reptiles of concern (Indian python, reticulated python, northern and southern African rock python, amethystine or scrub python, green anaconda and Nile monitor lizard) on Everglades, Francis S. Taylor, Holey Land and Rotenberger WMAs and Big Cypress National Preserve.”

“The more pythons removed, the better,” says Ms. Ferraro.

Whether wanted or unwanted, animals and fish are struggling across Florida, and even revived sea turtles could face further problems since reptile hypothermia can lead to a compromised immune system, says Mr. Squires at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.

“Sea turtles are endangered, and with only one out of several thousand hatchlings surviving to reach reproductive age, an event like this obviously takes on significance,” he adds.

In Riviera Beach, north of Miami, and Apollo Beach, near Tampa, manatees and rays are using outflows from nuclear power plants as hot tubs, drawing scores of curious Floridians to watch. In St. Pete Beach and other places around the state, biologists have reported significant cold-related fish kills including snook, catfish, and juvenile lane snapper unable to deal with the region’s big chill.

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