The same can’t necessarily be said, though, for some other scourges currently using Florida as a staging ground. Creatures like the tegu, a dog-size toothed lizard that is gaining a foothold in the woods of central Florida. Or the lionfish, an aquarium escapee with long, venomous spines. Or the Cuban tree frog, which has a nasty habit of eating native frog species. Or, herbaceously, the Brazilian peppertree, with its toxic and prolific berries. They’re all here, and thriving. And thanks to globalization effects and a changing climate, they’re all on the move.
Call it Floridafication: A number of the state’s nastiest living attributes are rapidly migrating outward. The state’s unusual history and climate have made it a cushy incubator for all manner of ecological threats. But many of the phenomena that make Florida disturbingly unique, from reptiles to trees to whole landscape types, may not be unique to it for long. As the climate continues to shift, it will get harder and harder to think of the Sunshine State as a place apart, an ecological Other sealed off from the rest of the country by an imaginary wall of palm trees. So mock the place at your peril. Florida’s strange present may be coming for your state’s future.
Floridafication is being driven by those two familiar forces — man-made climate change and globalization — stirred together into a cocktail all the state’s own. Florida is a good case study for the effects of globalization, in particular. Trade winds have been blowing across the peninsula for nearly half a millennium, starting with the founding of the Spanish city of St. Augustine, a full 50 years before Virginia’s Jamestown, and continuing with Miami’s present-day role as a hub for intercontinental trade. All that cargo coming and going has inevitably brought nonnative species: stowaways slithering in the holds of ships or sloshing around in the bilge water.
Others have been brought here on purpose. Florida has long been home to a thriving captive wildlife industry (think of how Netflix’s “Tiger King” kept returning to the Sunshine State). This has contributed to its status as the place with the highest number of introduced animals in the United States. It’s a predictable problem: Smugglers bring exotic creatures here in cages, and hurricanes spring them free. Or else economic storms do the trick, as people acquire their prized animals during boom times and turn them loose after the bust. This is believed to be how the tegu was introduced to the wild in the mid-2000s: During a dip in the market, some down-on-their-luck wildlife importer drove to the woods outside Tampa and released a few of the big lizards.
If that was where the story ended, it would be troubling enough. But as the Georgia Department of Natural Resources can attest, it wasn’t. The agency has had an all-points bulletin out for the tegu since 2018, fearing its ability to devour the eggs of tortoises, alligators and ground-nesting birds. Then, in August, South Carolina found its first tegu. With warmer weather on deck for these states, the tegu could permanently expand its fiefdom northward.
In news reports about the lizard from the Atlantic states, there’s a note of passive-aggressive spite for their southern neighbor. Can you blame them for their pique? If it weren’t for Florida — or more accurately, Floridians — their states might well be free from these and other marauders.
Consider the Brazilian peppertree, an attractive shrub with bright red berries that generally grows to ornamental-type heights. That was its purpose when it was first brought to the state in the 1800s: Northerners planted it in their yards, calling it Christmas-berry. In time, the shrub “escaped cultivation,” to use botanists’ goofily dramatic phrase. It is now the most widespread nonnative plant in Florida.
In my time doing land management work on preserves around the state, I’d encounter old farm fields that had become vast thickets of peppertree, its toxic berries suppressing all the species that might otherwise compete. The prescribed fires that we used to control other invasive species wouldn’t kill it; herbicide barely made a dent. Sometimes, the best option is just to keep it from taking root anyplace else.
That’s a tall order, because climate change is pouring rocket fuel on the situation that globalization created. A 2019 paper modeled the possible dispersal of Brazilian peppertree under different climate scenarios. It projected a range that could spread from South Carolina clear over to Central Texas, a vast swath of the country. Yearly freezes should be keeping the shrub at bay, but with milder winters in the forecast, the invasion is proceeding apace. The shrub has already made a few successful forays up the Eastern Seaboard into Georgia.
This phenomenon, called poleward migration, isn’t restricted to invasive plants. It’s also happening with Florida’s “good” native species, like coastal mangroves. They, too, are moving north, though more slowly. This change comes at the expense of the ecological communities they replace in the grassy salt marshes that predominate all the way up to Maine. The real peril in these shifts — and with Floridafication in general — is sameness. Every degree of latitude that these newcomers move represents a grave loss for native biodiversity. We are at risk of a homogenous future, and for large parts of the country, that future could look a lot like the Weirdest State.
We aren’t helpless against the Brazilian peppertree, or the tegu, or any of Florida’s other invasives. Early detection of new outbreaks, and rapid response efforts to contain them, are critical — whether the invader swims, slithers or sprouts. This will take a lot of work; defending and restoring ecosystems will probably require even more effort than we put into upending them. We’re nowhere near good enough at this in Florida, though there have been meaningful attempts. For example, the state’s Republican leadership is on track to fulfill a promise to budget $2.5 billion over four years for water resources, much of it to restore the heavily disturbed Everglades. Reality in the Sunshine State is just outlandish enough to trump ideology, from time to time.
The rest of the country would do well to look to Florida for a warning of what’s over the horizon. While they’re at it, they may also want to learn a few lessons in adaptation from this most unstable of states: Ideas such as the “living shorelines,” raised roads, elevated or floating homes, and other mechanisms created to cope with the sea-level rise that will soon affect many other parts of the country. But coping doesn’t always have to be doomy and dismal. Sometimes it is delectable. Floridians have also become skilled at spearfishing for lionfish, perfecting recipes for barbecued invasive iguana and holding Burmese python hunting competitions.
Let’s hope that other states never need to learn those particular skills. Because as much as many of us adore this exasperating and entrancing state, one Florida is plenty.