The Mysteries of Florida’s Non-Native Species

People often ask why I selected Florida as the setting for my Claudia Hershey Mystery Series. Well, it’s true that I’ve lived in Florida most of my life, so that has to count for something. But more than that? It’s largely because the state is home to one of the most astonishing animal environments in the world. The alligator, of course, springs to mind.

Burmese python eating alligatorBut a lot of Florida’s animals aren’t native to the state, even if by now many have adapted to the state’s climate and other animals quite successfully. (That’s not necessarily to say people have adapted to them as well.)

In fact, in researching this I learned that Florida is reputed to have more invasive (or “non-native”) species than any other place in the world. Some are introduced to the state by accident. More, though, are intentionally brought in, with some regularity through the pet industry seeking exotic creatures for customers who eventually tire of them as the needs for their exotic “pets” increase. So what happens? Those thrill-seeking pet owners surreptitiously unleash them into the wild, often near a canal.

The Burmese python is one of those non-native species, and it’s a dangerous reptile that’s made international headlines because of its very real threat to pets and humans. Hey, those snakes average 12 feet or so in length. Would you want to encounter one? No. I didn’t think so.

Burmese pythons were first spotted in Everglades National Park, where alligators generally reign supreme but themselves occasionally fall prey to these monstrous snakes. Importing them is banned, but because Burmese pythons have virtually no predators here, they appear to be thriving.

green iguanaAnother critter that’s grabbed a lot of headlines is the Green iguana, which may be a vegetarian but looks fierce and grows to more than six feet. They hang out around canals, but they’re not even remotely timid about slipping into neighborhood swimming pools. Oh, and they’re actually quite good climbers. If you happen to look up in a forested area, you might well spot one. I have on more than several occasions. I wouldn’t want one to fall on my head.

The Gentler Side

muscovy duck with babiesMuscovy ducks, what most people in Florida consider the “ugliest duck on the planet,” is non-native. It, too, has thrived — for me, something of a thrill because I actually marvel at these thick-bodied ducks that I see daily in the community lake my house faces. Oh, sure. They don’t have the spectacular beauty of the Egyptian goose (also, a non-native species), but wow, if you ever see two male Muscovy ducks duke it out over a female, your jaw will drop to your chest.

There are hundreds of non-native species of all sorts in Florida. Animal species might get most of the attention, but vegetation is a big problem as well. All in all, they combine to make Florida a compelling setting for my main character, police Detective Claudia Hershey. Lord knows we have enough novels and TV shows set in the glittery, tourist-seeking coastal areas such as Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

But Central Florida? It’s not just about cattle and crops or secretive people in small towns. Invasive species provide one more element that for me gives rise to gripping scenes when I’m putting Claudia through her paces. (If you don’t believe me, read Quietly Dead.) In short, I keep Claudia busy in an environment that can be as treacherous as the bad guys.