Quite a few invasive species have made Florida their new home including lionfish, snakeheads, pythons, boa constrictors, iguanas, cane toads, and Nile monitor lizards. Among these invasive species are even colonies of monkeys that, though famous locally, aren’t well-known outside of their areas.
There are six known locations where you can go see wild monkeys in Florida, consisting of four species that either are or were at one point established in the state.
The monkey colonies of Florida most likely started in very similar ways to other invasive species. Lab subjects, zoo animals, and escaped pets (registered and unregistered) are the main contributors to invasive species in Florida.
Florida deals with hurricanes just about every year. While more mild storms are easy to wait out, more intense storms are responsible for widespread devastation and property damage. Zoos, ape farms/care facilities, and homes aren’t immune to this.
Florida Atlantic University has been able to genetically track a group of wild vervet monkeys near the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to the Dania Chimpanzee Farm in 1948. How they escaped from the research facility is unsure, but the group has lived in a small mangrove forest for over 70 years.
Other populations of monkeys throughout the state likely had similar origin stories. Zoo escapes after hurricanes, research facility breaches, and lost pets are the likeliest contributors. Despite efforts to round up escapees, in all documented cases of breakouts, some got away.
The tropical and subtropical climates of Central and South Florida are very similar to the climates of Africa where these monkey species originate. Lush mangroves, swampy forests, and regular warm temperatures are all good bases for monkey habitats.
On top of this, monkeys are an omnivorous species. They eat fruits, plants, eggs, insects, and small animals. All of which come in a steady supply in the humid forests and swamps of Florida.
The established monkey populations also come from species that easily adapt to new environments and thrive in a variety of areas across Africa. Wild-captured specimens that escape likely had little trouble finding food and adapting to Florida’s environments.
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Four Types of Wild Florida Monkeys
Of the four known wild populations of monkeys in Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission designates two species as established and two as extirpated. Extirpated means that the population has been removed, destroyed, or otherwise no longer exists in any established fashion.
Rhesus macaques vary in color from gray to tan, have little to no fur on their face and butt, and have short tails. A typical specimen stands under two feet tall and weighs just under twenty pounds.
The largest populations of rhesus monkeys can be found in Silver SpringsState Park, but their origin is not a mystery. In the 1930s, originally six monkeys were released by a glass-bottom boat driver to help increase tourism in the area. Later in the 1940s, the same captain released another six monkeys into the park.
While he released them onto a single island, the monkeys are good swimmers and quickly spread out. Non-native to Florida, rhesus macaques are endemic from Afghanistan to the Eastern Coast of China. They can easily adapt to handle a wide variety of habitats and climates.
These monkeys also adapt to sharing both urban and rural environments with people extremely well. In some countries, they’re considered sacred, while in others they’re kept as farm pets and allowed to raid crop fields.
The species is considered established by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Vervet or green monkeys are usually around 16-24 inches (40-61 cm) tall with a 12-20 inch (30-51 cm) long tail. They typically weigh in at around 7-11 pounds (3.2-5 kg). All of them have black-skinned faces, a gray to a tan fur coat, and a blue to green groin area.
Vervet monkeys are found natively across Africa, from Senegal to Ethiopia across the continent and south throughout South Africa. In Florida, two troops of over 120 monkeys can be found in South Florida’s Broward County near Dania.
Unlike other species, these monkeys prefer open ground over heavily forested areas, making the flat swamps of South Florida an excellent home. They primarily feed on insects, fruits, and plants, but also will eat small birds, eggs, and mammals.
Vervet monkeys do not operate with a single alpha male in a group, instead, you can find multiple males in a single troop. They typically stick to smaller groups instead of large congregations and are rarely afraid of people.
The species is considered established by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Squirrel monkeys are commonly kept as pets thanks to their cute looks and playful nature. They have long tails, a rather squirrel-shaped body (hence the name), and a furry face with black mouths and eyes.
A typical squirrel monkey has a foot-long body and a 16-inch (41 cm) tail. Their bright yellow legs also help distinguish them from other small monkey species.
Squirrel monkeys at one time had colonies in five different parts of Florida. Today, only one small population remains near Fort Lauderdale at the Bonnet House Museum and Gardens. These monkeys are free-ranging and not held in captivity.
The species is considered extirpated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
While you shouldn’t see any of them in the wild most days, these monkeys weigh around three pounds, have long tails of around 40-65 cm (15-26 in), and a body around 38-55 cm (14-22 in).
Despite the name, they don’t usually eat crabs. Most of their diet consists of fruit and seeds. They are omnivorous though and spend a great deal of time looking for food on beaches. They typically live in groups of around 30 individuals.
Unlike the other species in the list, crab-eating macaques didn’t have long-lasting populations in the state. Wild specimens were mostly small groups of escaped monkeys from ape exhibits like Monkey Jungle in Miami.
Chimpanzees, Skunk Apes, and Other Legends from Florida
I’d like to preface this section by stating that chimpanzee populations in the state of Florida are neither scientifically documented nor established. There are numerous reports of ape sightings in the state, however, most can be chalked up to escaped pets, laboratory subjects, mistaken identity, or loose animals after storms.
This delves into the realm of unproven cryptozoology, not established fact, and aims to explain the sightings of these animals.
Eyewitness reports of wild, chimpanzee-like apes have been documented in Florida since the 1950s. Enough so that History Channel’s Monster Quest did their own investigation into whether there were wild chimpanzees in Florida’s swamps. Their investigation found nothing, but you can see a detailed description of the findings and investigation here.
Chimpanzees are sold in the exotic pet trade and famous chimpanzee attacks such as the 2009 attack on Sandy Harold did occur in the state of Florida.
Chimpanzee sightings in the state are nearly certainly the result of escaped animals, whether from one of the many ape facilities or an unreported escape of an exotic pet.
Okay, time for a doozie. In short, Florida has its own bigfoot myth called the Skunk Ape. The cryptid is a large, ape-like creature said to inhabit the swamps and forests of Florida.
It’s reported to walk bipedally, stand between five and seven feet tall, covered in red or brownish fur, and give off an incredibly strong, skunk-like odor.
Legends of the creature go further back than European settlers, with the Seminole Tribe telling stories of the Esti Capcaki, or “cannibal giant”. For what it’s worth, the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization has archived 333 sightings in Florida.
Sightings, photos, and even a few videos of the creature have surfaced over the years. Unfortunately, none of them are deemed as credible evidence of a hereto unknown-to-science bipedal ape existing in Florida’s swamps.
There are plenty of other legends revolving around animals and paranormal occurrences in Florida.
For a while it was an urban legend that snakes would routinely crawl up pipes and into your toilet, striking when you sat down. There likely were only one or two incidents of this, mostly resulting from invasive species like boas and pythons establishing themselves in the state.
Florida was thought to be the location of the fountain of youth. Even today, attractions are dedicated to the legendary spring supposedly found by Explorer Ponce de Leon.
Mysterious disappearances happen all the time in Florida. Ghostly specters, unknown creatures, and anything else the imagination can conjure is all blamed. Mostly though, it’s likely the vastness of the Everglades and ocean currents are to blame for these.
For the most part, the monkeys in Florida avoid people. Though many populations regularly come into contact with humans due to their locations, they tend to react aggressively when fed.
In Silver Springs State Park, it’s common for monkeys to hiss and run away from visitors. The park has even had to shut down operations multiple times due to aggressive behavior from resident monkey colonies.
Elsewhere, monkeys ruffle through trash looking for food when people aren’t around but run away when spotted. In some places such as Monkey Jungle, they’ve become more used to observations by people despite largely being left alone.
As populations are allowed to grow, they are also spreading out. Rhesus macaques have been spotted near Jacksonville, over a hundred miles away from Silver Springs State Park.
The rhesus macaque is a known carrier of the herpes B virus, with around a quarter of the population testing positive for it. The virus can be transmissible to humans through bites and scratches, however, the likelihood is low as there have only been 50 total cases of the B virus throughout the country since 1932 (nearly all of which were not from these monkeys).
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has banned feeding monkeys throughout the state.
Monkeys in Florida are different from other invasive species in that public opinion is against killing them off. When it comes to Burmese pythons and lionfish, most people are against their extermination. People are naturally inclined to be against the elimination of cute, furry animals.
Another option for getting rid of monkeys is sterilization. Unfortunately, this option is incredibly expensive, time-consuming, and unlikely to succeed in general. The situation has been described as a lose-lose one.
Many of the monkeys caught were then sold as lab animals, which resulted in public outrage and a temporary stop to trapping activities. If enough investment can be found, capture and relocation to zoos or care facilities is the best option.
There will be some sort of wildlife management of the monkeys required to keep populations in check.
The total environmental impact of monkeys in Florida is mostly unknown. For now, populations are relatively small and the impact is on a local, not widespread level. The research into their overall impact has been lacking as well.
The potential impact of monkey populations is massive. Widespread vegetation loss occurs through they and other invasive species eating and rooting through the undergrowth.
As an additional predator, the long-term effects of monkeys concerning birds and other wildlife are unknown. The monkey’s consumption of eggs can result in the decline of seabirds, wading birds, nesting turtles, and other animals native to the state.
In larger populations, it could be theorized that egg-eating monkeys could help reduce the number of invasive snakes and lizards, but this would come at the cost of native species as well.
The decimation of mangroves is a documented impact that occurred in the 1970s. Mangroves and other shore plants hold the shoreline together, and without them, shoreline erosion occurs. In Florida, this is especially worrisome as the state depends on mangrove swamps and barrier islands for defense against storm surges, as wave breakers, and spawning habitats for a plethora of fish species.
Florida is one of the largest citrus producers in the United States. It’s known that monkeys around the world pillage crops and can impact yields. These fruit trees can provide a food source for monkeys, but their overall impact on agriculture endeavors is yet to be seen.
Florida is a major trade hub for the United States and has one of the strongest exotic pet trades in the country. This, in addition to animal imports for zoos and research facilities, has resulted in the state now becoming home to more than 500 non-native plant and animal species.
Florida has a very welcoming climate for many tropical creatures that aren’t native there. As climate change intensifies, these species will likely continue to expand northward as those areas warm up.
Not all invasive species harm the ecosystem they fit into. Some simply find a niche and don’t disrupt the natural flow. Others, however, cause widespread destruction, and the most undesirable species will be the ones we take a closer look at.
The introduction of Burmese pythons is directly caused by the exotic pet trade. In a lot of cases, people released these snakes when they got too big to be manageable or they escaped after homes were damaged by hurricanes.
The Florida swamps were the perfect home for these snakes. Growing up to twenty feet in length, pythons had no natural predators in the state, a very similar climate and habitat to their native home, and a massive amount of unwary prey to choose from.
The Burmese python population is mostly contained within the Everglades and surrounding swamp areas.
Alligators are the only real animal to prey on the snakes, while wild boars (also invasive), panthers, and birds can all kill them while young. The snakes found a perfect home in the swamps where their population has exploded.
The state has many python removal programs, aimed at eliminating as many as possible from the swamps. There is an open season on them, as they pose a significant threat to both humans and native wildlife.
Lionfish were released from the exotic aquarium trade in South Florida and quickly spread throughout the state waters. As a Pacific species, they had no natural predators. Their poisonous spines also have the potential to kill many of the fish that did try to eat them.
While incredibly beautiful, lionfish represent a massive threat to the already overfished native species. Single lionfish can eat hundreds of juvenile game fish a day, and multiplying that by their population begins to paint the picture of their overall impact on the native fish stocks of the future.
Both people and native fish have fought back. Large fish have begun preying on lionfish. Florida has run massive initiatives to reduce lionfish populations. Festivals and roundups occur, with prizes for the largest, smallest, most, and weirdest lionfish.
An effort has even been made to create commercial viability for lionfish. They pop up on restaurant menus quite frequently here and people are urged to try them as they do have good table quality.
Thankfully, numbers are no longer climbing, and their population is being reduced slowly but surely.
The Argentine Tegu is one of three tegu species that have been found in Florida. These populations occur thanks to escaped or released pets and the exotic pet trade.
The lizards can grow to over four feet in length and are mainly found in the Miami-Dade area. They’re aggressive towards humans and their pets, with documented cases of them biting dogs.
They eat everything from fruits to pet food and small animals to their favorite food eggs. They’re voracious egg eaters that have been found digging up bird, turtle, and alligator nests, emptying them of eggs.
This can cause a huge issue when the lizards get into sea turtle or alligator nesting grounds, where both species are already threatened with extinction.
Their populations are currently not widespread but the efforts being made to contain their spread haven’t done much to keep the breeding populations in check.
Nile monitors are semi-aquatic lizards that can stay underwater for up to 15 minutes. They tend to grow to around five feet in length, weighing in at 15 pounds (7 kilograms). Of course, they were also brought in as pets and were either released or escaped like other invasive species.
They’re typically desert-dwelling animals but are found throughout 33 African countries, in areas including the Nile Delta, South Africa, Senegal, and even at high elevations.
Monitors are voracious feeders that eat everything, and I mean everything. Turtles, snakes, young alligators, birds, eggs, crayfish, mollusks, insects, and small mammals are all on the menu.
Wild boars are a big problem in Florida simply because of how they root through the ground. In addition to eating everything, they tear up and scar the ground, killing off plant life and also impacting agriculture.
Snakeheads are Asian fish that can temporarily breathe air and walk across the ground. They gulp down juvenile fish in the freshwater lakes, rivers, and canals.
Cane toads are crazily poisonous amphibians that eat native insects and frogs. They secret their venom when bitten, and the poison can kill animals magnitudes larger than the toads. Dogs, cats, and other animals are the most frequent victims, but the poison can bring down larger predators like alligators and snakes too.
Iguanas, green mussels, cats, snails, tree frogs, Florida geckos, snakes, and fish also make the list of the multitude of invasive species in Florida.