What do 16,000 dead iguanas smell like? Southern Fried Science Book Club Week 1

The first thing you notice after reading a couple of chapters of Eating Aliens is that this book is much more about hunting invasive species than about why they’re invasive in the first place. For me, I like that. I’ve spent a large chunk of my career exploring the issues surrounding species invasions, and it’s great to get what is essentially a field report from those working on the front lines. I love meeting the people who run these eradication campaigns, and the politics involved in effective invasive species management. This is my kind of invasive species book.

This first thing that captured my attention in the first two chapters was how radically different the approaches to black spiny-tailed iguanas and green iguanas were. Both are invasive. Both came in through the exotic pet trade. Black spiny-tailed iguanas are omnivores, they get into peoples trash, go after rodents, tear up gardens, and are generally a pest. They’re also only invasive in a relatively small area. People view them as pests and the initial response was a grassroots effort, only later supplanted by the USDA. In contrast, green iguanas are vegetarian, more widely distributed across Florida, and more personable. People don’t view them with the same level of ire and many appreciate their presence, as destructive to the habitat as it really is. It’s harder to hunt out invasive when people don’t view them as pests, and one of the big problems is that, as eradication campaigns become more effective, the invasive populations go down and people begin valuing the invasives due to their rarity. It’s a brutal feedback loop.

I don’t get the impression that Landers was really that excited about actually eating either iguana, but hopefully later chapters will have a lot more detail about the actual preparation.

Iguanas are one of the few cases that can be traced directly back to the exotic pet trade. For green iguanas, it’s people releasing them when they get too big or too hard to care for. For black iguanas, they tracked the release back to a single person. Exotics pets are one of the more insidious ways that invasives can take hold, because pets, by necessity, are already animals that people inherently value. It’s much harder to eradicate “pet” species than it is to eradicate “pest species”, which is why, for at least the green iguanas, the invasion has no end in sight.

What did you think of the first two chapters of Eating Aliens? Share your thoughts in the comments below (note:because of our comment moderating software, it may take a little bit for your comments to appear). This weekend we’ll tackle the next chapter, Pigs and Armadillos, and then do a three-pack on Wednesday with Lionfish, Green Crabs, and Asian Carp.