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When scientists at the University of Florida noticed a recent increase in sightings of a flashy red-headed lizard, they knew it was time to ask the public for help in fighting yet another invader. A big problem is that they love insects, including butterflies.
The Agama picticauda lizards are colorful — especially when they are breeding — and can grow to about a foot. In Florida, adult males have bold orange or red he, a black or dark gray body, and a tail that often has an orange stripe and black tip. Scientists are just starting to map out their distribution, but it appears that agamas tend to prefer urbanized areas rather than the Everglades, though they have been spotted surrounding the national park.
South Florida residents have probably seen at least one of these colorful lizards perched on a light post or strolling around a parking lot. Unlike invasive iguanas, which are much more numerous and eat plants, the agama prefers insects. The agama may also eat other invaders like the Cuban brown anole, and in their native range of East Africa they have been observed eating small mammals, birds, small reptiles, fruits and vegetation such as flowers and grass.
And because the agamas are also in the Keys, scientists are concerned they may decide to have a taste of one of the rarest insects in the United States, the Miami blue butterfly. But the risk is low because the last pockets of the little bug are in undisturbed areas like Long Key and Bahia Honda state parks, too wild for the apparently city-loving agama, Johnson said. The agama was first introduced to Florida in through the pet trade. After escaping or being released or both, sub-populations started growing in Homestead and several areas in Miami-Dade County.
South Florida offered the perfect spot for resettlement: a hospitable subtropical climate and large areas of disturbed habitat. The lizards hitched rides on trucks and even trains and spread north, being recently spotted in locations from Martin County to Brevard County and as far north as Jacksonville, according to information from sightings by the public reported on a multi-agency website managed by the University of Georgia.
Florida is home to more non-native species of reptiles and amphibians than anywhere else in the world. South Florida is especially at risk because of its thriving trade in exotic pets. Tegu lizards, for example, are happy in many different environments including the Everglades and will eat almost everything, including small mammals, bird eggs, fruit, insects and even pet food.
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