Two nonnative lizards are gaining ground in South Florida

You might have noticed a few new reptiles on the block. One’s a flamboyant redhead who very well may have hitchhiked its way into town, the other can walk on water. And though they’re not total newcomers, they’re on the rise in South Florida and popping their scaly heads up in areas where they’ve never been seen before.

As evidenced by Burmese pythons and ubiquitous iguanas, there’s a motley roster of nonnative reptile species surviving in Florida — three times the amount of indigenous species — but there are two in particular that are on the rise.

“[Brown] basilisks and Peters’s rock agama are hot on my radar,” says Ken Gioeli, a University of Florida natural resources extension agent who studies nonnative species. He’s seen both of these lizards stake out more territory in Broward and Palm Beach County in recent years.

At up to 2 feet in length, these guys are much larger than the little brown anoles (also nonnative) that scamper about. Brown basilisk are lanky and athletic, and have a leathery crest on their head and down their back. When fleeing, they sprint away on their hind legs, and younger ones have the uncanny ability to run on water, prompting some to proclaim them the “Jesus lizard.”

“The first time I ever encountered basilisks … it reminded me so much of a Jurassic Park movie – they reminded me of the velociraptors, except in miniature,” says Gioeli.

Unlike iguanas, basilisks kill things for a living; think roaches, small snakes, other lizards. They hail from East Africa and were brought here in 1963 through the exotic pet trade. They like to hang near fresh water, so South Florida’s canal systems have not only provided habitat, but also routes by which they can expand their range. “[Canals] acts like a super highway for them,” says Gioeli.

Mount Botanical Gardens in West Palm Beach is one environment they like to call home. Joel Crippen, a display garden horticulturalist who walks the verdant grounds daily, has been spotting them there for 13 years. “We see them all the time now. Before it was every once in a while.”

“They don’t bother us,” he says of the basilisks. “Our big problem are iguanas,” which feast on plants he’s trying to cultivate.

He also sees both of these nonnative reptiles in the yard at his West Palm Beach home. “The dogs chase ‘em,” he says. “The iguanas go in the pool. The basilisks just runs across the top of it.” The dogs have yet to catch one.

When you spot a foot-long male Peters’s rock agama you’ll know it.

“They’re showy … They’re colorful and people do a double take when they see them,” says Gioeli. They have a bright orange head, a black, grey or midnight blue torso and an orange tail with a black tip.

Females are far more sensible, sticking to various splotchy earth tones to blend in with gravel, tree bark or the side of a building. The first time Gioeli saw one it was clinging to the side of a CVS drugstore. “They’re found in more urban areas. They like that concrete jungle,” says Gioeli.

Gioeli says the east African reptile was released by a single pet trader in 1976 in both Homestead and Palm City.

They’re expanding their range by hitching rides on RVs, cars and trains, intentionally or not, and hopping off in new areas.

Gioeli says that officials in Everglades National Park are starting to check vehicles before they enter the park.

For a long time it seems like Peters’s rock agamas were stuck south of Stuart, and now they’re reaching Brevard County.

Gioeli notes that both of these species gained popularity as pets because they’re marketable — Peters’s rock agama are stunning, and the basilisks can walk on water.

Why do they seem to be on the rise? “The population density [both human and lizard] is filling in,” says Gioeli. The lizards have found ways to travel and survive amid human growth.

County parks are prime habitat. “The brown basilisk is a frequent visitor to our parks here in Broward,” says Broward County Natural Resources Specialist Elena Suarez. “Peters’s rock agama is less common, especially in our natural areas, but both … seem to be here for the long run.”

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Are they actually bad for Florida? There are pros and cons to the presence of both these creepers. On the one hand, they eat stuff most of us don’t like, such as roaches, flies and other bugs. They’ll pick off crabs and small snakes, too, and may actually eat other nonnative reptiles such as brown anoles.

Gioeli’s parents, who live in Palm City, have been seeing nonnative curly-tailed lizards for years, but once the brown basilisks showed up, the curly tails vanished.

They also might end up as food for hawks, herons, foxes, feral cats and bobcats. In other words, they’re fitting into a food chain that’s already been vastly disrupted.

Florida’s subtropical climate has made it a fecund haven for a menagerie of animals from around the planet, many of which were brought here as part of the exotic pet trade. Some are more disruptive than others. Brown anoles from Cuba outcompete native green anoles; knight anoles, also from Cuba, snatch bird eggs; tegu lizards from South American reach 5 feet in length and can raid the nests of gopher tortoise, American crocodiles, sea turtles and ground-nesting birds.

Burmese python have proliferated in the Everglades, reaching lengths of 18 feet and devouring deer, racoons, possums, alligators and other indigenous species, and possibly making it more difficult for endangered Florida panthers to find prey.

So far, the University of Florida has not designated either the brown basilisk or Peters’s rock agama as “invasive.” To earn that title researchers would have to show they “negatively impacts the ecology, economy, or quality of human life in the area where it was introduced by people.”

If you spot these lizard and you’d like to report your sightings, or see where others have seen them, you can go to the citizen science website and add your findings.

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