Capturing Florida's Chameleons, One Small Invasive Reptile at a Time

Chameleons are not native to North America, but they have been introduced in Florida thanks to people releasing their pets in the wild. . Fine Art Photos/Shutterstock

You may have heard about Florida's Burmese python problem. The invasive snake, which is native to Southeast Asia, has been introduced over the last few decades when local pet owners have released them into the wild. Something similar is happening with chameleons.

The small reptiles aren't native to North America, but they're turning up in Florida, with a half dozen species or more now inhabiting the Sunshine State. Florida is home to more introduced species of reptiles and amphibians living and breeding in the wild than anywhere else in the world, according to the University of Florida IFAS Extension. While the Burmese python has garnered much of the attention, about 139 other species of reptiles and amphibians have slipped into Florida’s urban and natural landscapes.

A controversial industry

A panther chameleon like this one could fetch $1,000 on the underground market in Florida.
A panther chameleon like this one could fetch $1,000 on Florida's 'underground' market. Cathy Keifer/Shutterstock

Because tree-dwelling chameleons are relatively harmless compared to the python, they aren't high on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's priority list. So some residents — called herpers — are taking matters into their own hands. Armed with flashlights, they practice herping, the act of searching for amphibians or reptiles, at night when it's dark, in hopes of finding one of these color-changing creatures.

But that's where the ethical road forks. Some herpers, according to National Geographic, search through rural backyards and bayous to catch chameleons, and then give them as pets to fellow enthusiasts or adopt them themselves. But others engage in a more controversial practice called ranching, where they breed and raise chameleons and sell them off.

As National Geographic reports:

Most of these ranching activities go unnoticed, since it's hard to prove whether a chameleon rancher deliberately — and illegally — introduced the initial chameleons, or just happened to already have them on his or her property. Ranching can be lucrative; a panther chameleon, one of the Florida non-natives, can sell for up to $1,000.

How they impact the environment

Oustalet chameleons are one species of the small reptile that's now found in Florida.
Oustalet chameleons are one species of the small reptile that's now found in Florida. Nashepard/Shutterstock

Chameleons are predators that eat insects, small frogs and lizards, according to the Everglades Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (CISMA). In some ways, they can be beneficial: They eat agricultural pests such as weevils, stinkbugs and caterpillars, and they eat nonnative reptiles and amphibians including geckos and Cuban tree frogs.

However, if chameleons establish themselves in Florida's natural wildlife areas, scientists are concerned the reptiles will eat more native species. Oustalet chameleons (pictured above), for example, have a high reproductive rate and can survive in a range of environments, including forests, savannas, shrublands and agricultural lands, CISMA says.