Out of Africa and Into the Sunshine State: Tracking an Exotic Invader

This is the story of an invasive species and one man’s quest to eradicate it. The Nile monitor lizard (Varanus niloticus), smaller cousin of the famed Komodo dragon, grows into six feet of carnivorous, ill-tempered muscle. The animal’s size and aggression make it a poor candidate for the exotic pet trade, but the species nevertheless obtained popularity in the 1990s. Two decades later, the descendants of released Nile monitors are breeding in the coastal town of Cape Coral, Florida, where the lizards benefit from extensive drainage canals and a buffet of native wildlife-and they’re spreading. Herpetologist Todd Campbell has devoted more than a decade of his research to these reptiles, attempting to understand how they got here, how their invasion is wreaking havoc on native ecosystems, and most of all, how to eliminate them for good. The challenges he’s faced along the way echo the wider concerns of fighting invasive species, which represent one of the greatest threats to global biodiversity and ecosystems but are poorly studied and rarely prioritized. This thesis follows the trajectory of the Nile monitor from its native Africa to southern Florida, exploring what it is about this lizard’s natural history, ecology, and allure to reptile enthusiasts that has made it a charismatic symbol of the perils of biological invasion.

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