TALLAHASSEE — Florida has more invasive amphibians and reptiles than anywhere else in the world, and the pet trade is the No. 1 cause, researchers said in a report released Thursday.
State officials, meanwhile, confirmed the presence of another type of invasive species — the giant African land snail — in South Florida, where it may pose a threat to human health as well as agriculture and even buildings.
The study says the pet industry was most likely responsible for the introduction of 84 percent of 137 nonnative reptile and amphibian species introduced from 1863 through 2010.
Of the nonnative reptile and amphibian species introduced, 56 have become established in Florida. They include 43 kinds of lizards, five snakes including the Burmese python, four turtles, three frogs and a caiman, which is related to the American alligator.
The study notes no one has ever been prosecuted for the establishment of a nonindigenous species.
It's difficult to get a conviction because a law enforcement officer must witness the release and the animal must be recovered, said Scott Hardin, exotic species coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The 20-year amphibian and reptile study led by University of Florida researcher Kenneth Krysko was published in the journal Zootaxa. It urges the passage of stronger laws to prevent the release of exotic species.
"No other area in the world has a problem like we do, and today's laws simply cannot be enforced to stop current trends," Krysko said. He is herpetology collection manager for the Florida Museum of Natural History on the Gainesville campus.
The study also says almost 25 percent of the invasive species are linked to one importer, Strictly Reptiles of Hollywood.
"I agree to disagree," said Ray Van Nostrand Jr., one of Strictly Reptiles' co-owners. "We do the best we can to control our inventory."
The study concludes Strictly Reptiles was the most likely source of at least 32 confirmed species found nearby because they have not turned up elsewhere and were listed in the firm's inventory.
Other releases were traced to cargo and zoos.
The most notorious of Florida's invasive reptiles is the Burmese python.
The Legislature last year passed a law banning individuals from owning the large snakes and six other large, exotic reptile species after a Burmese python killed a 2-year-old girl at her home in Oxford.
People who owned the banned reptiles before the law went into effect, though, can keep them.
Florida also is a haven for other exotic plant, fish and animal species. The giant African land snail could become one of the most destructive.
Growing up to 8 inches in length and more than 4 inches in diameter, the snail eats at least 500 types of plants and can cause structural damage to plaster and stucco. It also can carry a parasite that can lead to meningitis.
The last reported outbreak in Florida was in 1966 when a Miami boy smuggled three snails as pets. His grandmother released them into her garden and they multiplied. It cost more than $1 million to eradicate more than 18,000 snails.
It's too late, though, to eradicate the Burmese python, which has found a home in the Everglades and adjacent areas, said Rob Robins, coordinator of operations at the Museum of Natural History.
Hardin agreed. "Our strategy has been to try to contain them," he said.
Pythons in the wild are little danger to humans but could be to such threatened or endangered native species as the Florida panther and key deer, Robins said.