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Komodo dragons are the are the king-sized cousins of Nile monitor lizards, an invasive species showing up in Florida. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Florida attracts lots of quirky creatures of both the two-legged and four-legged variety.

But none of them are creepier than the Nile monitor lizard, which has been gaining a foothold on the peninsula thanks to exotic pet owners who gave up on their repugnant reptiles and released them into the wild.

In January, I wrote a story for the Palm Beach Daily News about invasive species in the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge, the sprawling last-remaining vestige of the northern Everglades in Palm Beach County. The subject was Melaleuca and the proliferation of Old World climbing fern, which is strangling native vegetation.

But in talking with people from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the subject of invasive animal species also came up. There is a well-known problem with pythons in the Everglades, but less discussed is the more recent issue of Nile monitor lizards, which have been harassing domestic pets from suburban West Palm Beach to Fort Myers.

While alligators — and even some species of crocodiles — have a certain majesty and are native to the state, sightings in residential neighborhoods are likely to prompt a call to authorities for removal. But spotting a monitor lizard in your backyard may raise the hair on the back of your neck.

“A typical adult Nile monitor can grow over 5 feet in length and weigh close to 15 pounds.” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission says on its website. “If encountered, they typically flee into the water.”

But not always.

This report which aired last fall on Channel 2 in Fort Myers, shows a lizard attacking someone’s dog. Through November, the City of Cape Coral received more than 30 calls about monitor lizards.

“If approached, a Nile monitor lizard will try to appear bigger, puffing out its lungs and standing on its back legs,” the reporter on the story says. It hunts during the day and sleeps at night.

Monitor lizards are the “baby cousins” of the larger and even more formidable Komodo Dragons, which can range up to 10 feet long and weigh as much as 200 pounds.

Found on the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang, and Padar, they hunt in packs and prey on large animals, including deer. “They will also ambush live prey with a stealthy approach,” says a description on Wikipedia. “When suitable prey arrives near a dragon’s ambush site, it will suddenly charge at the animal and go for the underside or the throat.”

They have never been reported in Florida.

But I just finished a 2010 book by Randy Wayne White — part of the very entertaining Doc Ford series — called Deep Shadow, in which the biologist protagonist and his buddies run into a Komodo on a remote Central Florida lake while hunting for lost treasure. Adventure and intrigue ensue amid a battle with the giant lizard, which had been culling beef cattle from the local rancher over several decades. (Komodos can live to the age of 30.)

Diving in the lake, Ford spots the creature and says: “I tried to convince myself that I was watching an over-sized gator, but I knew it wasn’t true. More than anything else, it looked like the tail of a Nile monitor lizard — but that couldn’t be. Monitors didn’t grow to be thirteen feet long, and the animal I was watching had to be at least as big as that.”

“A Komodo monitor? In Florida? Even as I thought the word impossible, I knew that I was wrong again. Florida was the perfect habitat for the world’s largest venomous lizard.”

Fiction is fiction and a novel is a novel. But some people will keep any kind of exotic pet, and exotic pet ownership inevitably leads to a chance of accidental — or intentional — release.

In Deep Shadow, White says: “In the remote pasturelands of Central Florida, a Komodo-sized lizard wouldn’t just survive, it would thrive. An animal with its habits could live unnoticed for years, feeding by night and sleeping underground by day.”

One thing is certain: Florida with its near-tropical climate is more attractive to exotics than most other states. Environmentalists can and do make progress against both plant and animal varieties, but the war never seems to be completely won.

The Everglades is remote and its fringes press up against residential neighborhoods as development pushes farther into the peninsula’s interior.

Be careful out there.

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