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Apr 25th
Frozen Objects Falling from the Skies PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jen Karetnick   
February 2010

Snowflakes? Maybe. Reptiles? Definitely

Nobody believes that I saw snow in Miami. It wasn’t during our recent weeks of freezing weather, and not during the record-breaking winter of 1977. Nobody, that is, except the students who witnessed it with me, and the motorists below me, who slammed on their brakes at precisely the same time and gazed skyward.

I was in my classroom at Miami Arts Charter School, which occupies the former Channel 10 building. My particular room has two large floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto Biscayne Boulevard. This can be a distraction in my middle-school classes. I constantly have to prevent a rush to the windows when anything vaguely exciting happens.

A cold front had just moved through, the first of the season. Not as cold as the weather we just experienced, but chilly and uncomfortable for a fall day in Miami. It was also gray as weathered coral rock, with the kind of rain that comes at you like electrical interference -- no matter what you do, you can’t tune it out.

This is why I noticed the snow, or what Miami meteorologists might call “frozen precipitate matter.”

They weren’t big, puffy snowflakes like you might get on a still night in New England. They didn’t float to the ground like downy bird feathers. Nor were they the wind-driven mass that makes up the blizzards of the plains. Instead they were something in between: the flakes were tiny, yet perfectly formed, some conjoined, some separate little star shapes, wafting up and down on the currents of air. My students and I watched as they melted on contact with the classroom windows. It lasted for about ten minutes.

I can’t prove it, but that may have been the first time it snowed in Miami since 1977.

During last month’s cold spell, there wasn’t snow anywhere near Miami Shores. The only frozen objects my neighbors and I saw falling from the sky near my home were significantly larger than snowflakes, and were various shades of green. They were iguanas.

The terrible fate of these supposedly nonnative lizards made national headlines during our weeks of unseasonably cold weather. After days of less-than-tolerable chill, clouds, and rain, the iguanas essentially hibernated in midstep, curling up and falling off their tree limbs in various poses. Some of those that landed on grass and remained hidden, may have eventually revived when the air warmed, although most died after three days of being in this state. Others fell on concrete from great distances and mortally wounded themselves, or were victims of cars, or were marked as easy prey.

Wildlife officials, in various media outlets, advised against reviving the iguanas. They’d been waiting for this day to come, they said. It was saving the region unheralded millions of dollars in removal and disposal of these pesky iguanas, because while it is legal for residents to kill the lizards, it must be done humanely. The Sun Sentinel even ran an article quoting homeowners who have had problems with the foliage-eating, foul-pooping reptiles and have wanted them gone, but couldn’t quite get up the nerve to do it themselves. “I don’t have the heart to beat one to death,” one woman said. Another “humane” way of “disposing of” the green iguana? Beheading.

I can understand the widespread embrace of natural selection at work, especially given that these reptiles are invasive creatures, the entire population of green iguanas thought to be the work of pets released into the wild that then procreated and became feral. Interestingly, however, the Green Iguana Society reports that “in the November 2009 issue of Reptiles magazine (Vol. 17, Number 11), noted reptile vet Douglas Mader stated the following: ‘I have done a lot of research on the origins of the iguanas in the Keys. There are accounts of wild green iguanas living here from the 1950s. That’s long before these animals were ever popular as pets and long before people could have released them back into the wild.... My investigations so far point to the fact that green iguanas may have a native origin [in the Keys].”

I’ve read other accounts that put populations of green iguanas in the Keys in the 1920s. Some suggest they migrated from South America during hurricanes or as the result of shipwrecks. But really there isn’t a whole lot to go on. (Black spiny-tailed iguanas, which were imported as pets from Central America and are also found feral in South Florida, are an entirely different matter.)

So if it’s incorrect to assume that green iguanas are an invasive species in South Florida, it would also be incorrect to assume that they have no place in our subtropical food chain. Birds of prey feast on the young, and so do other reptiles. In the suburbs, however, it’s true that the largest iggies have no real predators except cars, and can indeed hurt people. In fact one actually jumped on my brother-in-law while he was riding his bike, gouging his chest and back.

Indeed I’ve seen these creatures at work on more than just people, and it’s not a pretty sight. They chew through mesh patio coverings and claw through fences. They destroy gardens -- iguanas love tomatoes -- and defoliate yards. They defecate in pools. According to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, green iguanas also compete with us for our mangoes. (I for one am happy to share.)

But they are also beautiful, prehistoric-looking creatures that fascinate, and it appears that very few studies have been done on their origins in South Florida. So while wildlife personnel were busy saving as many hypothermic manatees and sea turtles as they could, and turning their backs on a species they have no real historic knowledge of, the kids in my neighborhood were wrapping their little catatonic carcasses in blankets.

My husband and I warmed up two of them in heated water. One iguana died; the other survived. The next day my kids took it to their science teacher, who declared it well enough to release.

Meanwhile the iguanas that officials were so happy to let expire are littering the roadways of Miami Shores and Biscayne Park. Not only didn’t they want to invest the funds to remove them live, it seems they also don’t want to remove them dead. As one of my students put it: “Every time I walk my dog, there’s more of them. It’s like some weird version of The Birds.”

Perhaps we did the wrong thing, saving a life here and there. But I can’t stand by and be inhumane, at least in my opinion. And wouldn’t it be ironic if the green iguana turns out to be a native species after all -- and is now, thanks to our freak weather, an endangered one.

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