Iguanas of the Florida Keys and Key West

iguanas of the florida keys

Wildlife is everywhere in the keys, some old residents and some new. Most of them are enjoyed and even cherished by locals and tourists, though there is one big exception- the green iguana. A hot topic, the iguanas of the Florida Keys have made their home in the islands and have no intentions of leaving. This has created quite a stir in the local community, and has even made the news. But what is the green iguana, how did it make its way to the Keys and should we like them? We’ll take a look at those questions and more below.

What are green iguanas

A herbivore, originally from Central, South America and the Caribbean, the green iguana is a large species of lizard. Though they are green iguanas, most just refer to them simply as iguana. Large in size with males reaching up to nearly 5 feet in length, the iguana is quite a site, especially if you weren’t planning on seeing one.

Most iguanas in the United States, outside of feral populations in the Florida Keys, Hawaii and Texas, are kept as pets in both indoor and outside cages where they thrive if given the proper amount of light and heat. Because iguanas are cold blooded reptiles, they need to sun themselves several times a day in order to keep their body temperature within the ideal range, making the Florida Keys a perfect environment. With near constant sunny skies and sub-tropical temperatures, it’s no wonder that green iguanas have found yet another home in the Florida island chain.

How iguanas got to the Keys

It is believed that the first green iguanas to find themselves in the Florida Keys were stowaways on several ships bringing fruit over from South America. As time went on their population grew with some added members introduced by owners who tired of their pets and thus released them into the wild. There is also belief that some of the iguanas were pet trade escape artists that were not a planned release.

Friend or foe

This is up for debate…lots and lots of debate. Most Key West residents, as well as some from the other keys, are not fans of the iguanas. They feel that the iguana is nothing more than an unwelcomed guest in their homes, or yards in this case, that should be taken care of ASAP. This ‘hatred’ stems from one main thing- the iguanas and their vivacious appetite for all things flowers and fruits. Residents have often found their newly planted flowering or fruiting plants destroyed within minutes by a single iguana. This naturally causes for a bit of distaste by the plant’s owner.

On the other hand, there are some residents that feel that maybe the iguanas aren’t as bad as others propose them to be. They agree that iguanas eat flowering plants, as it is part of their diet, but believe they don’t do nearly as much damage as some would like the tourists to believe. These residents feel that the iguanas add more character to the keys and in that sense, give more than they take.

When you take a step back and look outside of gardening problems, you’ll see that iguanas actually pose more of a problem than originally thought. Iguanas have come to love certain species of endangered plants, thus causing havoc on the local environment. In fact, today iguanas are considered an invasive species that is causing harm to critical plants, insects and the burrowing owl.

How to live with the iguanas

Whether you agree that the iguanas of the Florida Keys are friend or foe, it doesn’t really matter as these reptiles are here to stay. In fact, it is noted that the iguana population has expanded quite a bit over the years and they are now colonizing more and more of the islands. Now the thing to do, is to figure out the best way to live with them.

Some residents choose to handle the problem themselves by using the iguanas for food or for bait in crab traps. Others have simply decided not to plant certain types of fruits or flowering plants. Still others have decided to take a different approach by continuing to keep those plants that the iguanas crave so much, but keeping them out of reach by hanging the plants between trees on a thin line of some sort. Although iguanas are great climbers, they’re not so good on thin ropes or wire.

If you really want an iguana, or two, off your property but don’t want to kill it, you can set up a trap and then have someone else take care of the rest. You can generally rent traps at your local animal shelter.