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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Experts work to manage invasive species across Florida

Invasive species create potential dangers for the economy, human health and the environment

Florida is experiencing a boom in new residents, but it’s not just humans moving to the Sunshine State. 

The state is home to roughly 500 non-native species, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Florida’s subtropical climate, multiple ports of entry and rampant animal trade makes the state a global hotspot for invasives, the FWC reports. 

UF researchers are monitoring some of the most high-profile non-natives, especially those that could be harmful to Florida. However, some Floridians find benefits in their new neighbors, and have advocated for certain species to stay. 

Silver Springs Monkeys

In the 1930s, a commercial boat captain named Colonel Tooey released about six rhesus macaque monkeys on an island in Silver Springs. The Colonel’s goal was to draw more tourists to the area, as macaques were considered an exotic oddity. However, macaques are also excellent swimmers — soon after their release, the monkeys swam off the original island and began to breed. 

Now, there could be up to 400 macaques in Silver Springs, UF Wildlife Ecology and Conservation professor Steve Johnson estimates. Johnson has closely studied the macaques for almost a decade, in an effort to gauge the species’ potential impact on the environment. 

Macaques eat native plant species and could be a threat to native birds, Johnson said. Macaques are also carriers of the Herpes B virus, which can be fatal to humans. Contracting the disease from a macaque is unlikely, Johnson said, but the repercussions would be severe. 

“It’s very low risk, but potentially very high consequences,” he added. 

In the early 2000s, hundreds of rhesus macaques were removed from Silver Springs and sold to biomedical research facilities. The removal sparked public controversy and was ended in 2012, leaving the species mostly unmanaged. 

At Silver Springs State Park, visitors are advised to keep their distance from the monkeys. Public areas in the park are sometimes closed if a macaque is spotted, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Press Secretary Nikki Clifton wrote in an email statement. 

“The Florida Park Service posts signs and flyers to educate visitors about wildlife and reminds them to keep a safe distance and not to feed them or try to touch or capture them,” Clifton said. 

Captain Rob Manley, who offers boat tours of the Silver River, said he often sees rhesus macaques on his charters. For many tourists, the possibility of seeing the monkeys is the whole reason they come to Silver Springs, Manley said.

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Removing the monkeys from Silver Springs would negatively impact Manley’s business, he said. However, his reasons for wanting to protect the macaques goes beyond that. Monkeys have become synonymous with Silver Springs, Manley said, and are a part of the park’s landscape. 

“I fell in love with this place, and I don’t want to hurt it,” he added. “The monkeys are part of it. And I don’t want to hurt them either.” 

Redbay Ambrosia Beetle

The redbay ambrosia beetle is tiny, at only two millimeters long. Yet the miniscule insect could threaten Florida’s multi-million dollar avocado industry. The beetle was first detected in Florida two decades ago, UF Forest Entomology professor Jiri Hulcr said. 

The beetle is a vector for a disease called laurel wilt, which has decimated the population of native redbay trees in Florida. Redbay trees are important for Florida’s environment, Hulcr said, and their loss could create a cascade of damage. 

Avocado trees are in the same family as redbays, and are also susceptible to laurel wilt. Once the beetle infects a redbay tree with laurel wilt, native insects can then spread the disease to avocado trees. In Florida, more than 300,000 avocado trees have already been lost to laurel wilt.

One of Hulcr’s main concerns is the possibility that the redbay ambrosia beetle — and laurel wilt disease — could spread to other parts of the world. 

The number of avocados grown in Florida is small compared to the amount grown in Mexico, where avocados are often called “green gold.” If the beetle reaches Mexico, Hulcr said, a multi-billion dollar industry could be decimated. 

“Our interest is to help our friends in these other countries to be educated about this disease and to do surveillance for potential invasions,” Hulcr said. “We really need to work across the border on this.” 

At UF’s Tropical Research and Education Center, Entomology and Nematology professor Daniel Carillo works with local avocado farmers nearly every day. Trying to maintain an avocado grove infected with laurel wilt is expensive, Carillo said, and some growers have left the industry to switch to a new crop. 

Laurel wilt is the most pressing concern to the industry, Carillo said, but there’s hope growers will be able to adapt to the disease. Experts and farmers have gotten better at detecting laurel wilt early on, and have developed tactics to reduce its spread. 

“[Farmers] feel more comfortable in their ability to manage the disease,” Carillo said. “They are certainly committed to avocado production.” 

Snook in Cedar Key

Captain Jason Clark caught his first snook as a teenager in Cedar Key. In the 1990s, seeing a snook in Cedar Key was possible but uncommon. The popular sportfish usually keeps to the warmer waters off the coast of South Florida, as it is sensitive to water below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Now, snook have become a common fixture in Cedar Key and are commonly caught in the waters around the Big Bend region. Some fishermen in the area now specialize in snook, Clark said, and the fish has brought more business to fishing guides. 

“Ten years ago, people wouldn’t call a Cedar Key guide to just solely go after snook,” Clark said. 

Snook have moved northward over the past decade because of climate change, director of the UF Nature Coast Biological Station Mike Allen said. Along with other state and local government agencies, Allen and his team study the snook’s changing patterns. 

Due to climate change, water temperatures in North Florida aren’t as cold in the winter and are more hospitable to snook, Allen said. The snook has fully established itself in the Cedar Key region, making it a “neo-native,” or a species that moves beyond its historical region. 

Some neo-native species don’t cause direct harm to the environment, while others can become invasive. The snook’s impact isn’t clear yet, Allen said, but the fish could potentially create steeper competition for space and food. 

Snook aren't the only neo-native species to emerge over the past decade. As the globe continues to warm, it’s likely more species will begin to change their behavior, Allen said. Especially in Florida’s changing climate, there’s potential for additional neo-native species to emerge.

“We know the temperatures are warming… and the animals are changing their habitats accordingly,” Allen said. “This is a phenomenon that is literally affecting all types of species.”  

Contact Kylie Williams at Follow her on X @KylieWilliams99.

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Kylie Williams

Kylie Williams is a second-year journalism major and a sustainability minor. This is her second semester as the environmental enterprise reporter. Outside of the newsroom, she can be found reading, baking or watching reality TV. 

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