Letter from the Conservation Front Line – Peters’s Rock Agama

The letter has been published in Animal Conservation: M.P. van den Burg et al.: The threat of Peters’s Rock Agama (Agama picticauda) to reptile diversity across the Lesser Antilles. Animal Conservation 2023, 12889. https://doi.org/10.1111/acv.12889

Florida’s biosecurity failings threaten Caribbean reptiles

Florida is a hotspot for non-native species including many reptiles, which are spreading unchecked to the Caribbean. The Peters’s Rock Agama, a lizard native to sub-Saharan Africa, is among the latest species to spread from Florida to the Caribbean islands. Conservationists are expressing their fear for the impacts of this non-native species in a public letter which advises scientists, conservationists, policy makers, veterinarians and border control agencies to be on high alert.

Florida is widely known to be a hotbed of invasive alien species, including many non-native reptiles from around the world. It is not uncommon to see new reports about green iguanas (a species from Central America) falling from the trees during cold spells, or large pythons from Asia preying on native deer and alligators in the Everglades. There are many other aliens that receive far less attention yet are no less dangerous.

Among the most insidious aliens is the Peters’s Rock Agama, or Agama picticauda, a reptile native to western and central Sub-Saharan Africa. This colorful lizard first arrived in Florida in the 1970s and has since spread across the Sunshine State, preying on a wide range of small animals.

Photographs of Peters’s Rock Agama in Florida. Photos taken by Vijay Barve and John Wolaver, see iNaturalist (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/37604254 and https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/72025522; under licenses CC BY and CC BY-NC).

New citizen science reports show this species has now reached the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands, undoubtedly carried as stowaways on vessels out of Florida. A group of Caribbean-based biologists and conservationists are now expressing their deep concern because this region is a biodiversity hotpot with thousands of unique, endemic species, over 1,500 of which are already at high risk of extinction. Other undesirable aliens that are inferred to have spread to the Caribbean via Florida in recent years including Green Iguanas (Iguana iguana), Black Spiny-tailed Iguanas (Ctenosaura similis) and Asian House Geckos (Hemidactylus frenatus).

In their letter to the journal Animal Conservation, co-authored by Dolfi Debrot from Wageningen Marine Research, the authors identify nearly 50 native reptile species that could be impacted if the agama becomes established across the Eastern Caribbean. Many species are at risk of being eaten by the agamas and even large native lizards are likely to experience competition and displacement given the agama’s aggressive behaviours.

The authors advise scientists, conservationists, policy makers, veterinarians and border control agencies to be on high alert for incursions by Peters’s Rock Agamas and other non-native reptiles. They further urge the transport sector – especially those operating out of Florida – to be on the lookout for the agama and to take swift measures to remove them.

View article: https://zslpublications.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/acv.12889