I live on the edge of a nature preserve, and on Christmas Day I noticed a handful of bright green plants with ruby red berries blooming near my back yard. I was struck by the festive color combination, perfect for the holidays.
But that delight was dampened when after a little online sleuthing I realized they are Brazilian pepper trees, and, while attractive, they’re also toxic. A brush against the plant’s leaves can result in a rash similar to poison ivy and the berries are poisonous.
I live in Florida. These plants don’t belong here. Their home is South America but they somehow migrated past that wall Mexico was supposed to pay for and have taken root all over the Sunshine State infesting more than 700,000 acres. They are considered among the Florida’s most problematic invasive plant species.
Which got me thinking about other invasive species (apart from tourists), the most talked about of late being the massive Burmese python infestation of the Florida Everglades where the snakes appear to have decimated the small mammal population in the River of Grass.
And while contemplating that, I had an epiphany: There’s a funny word that rhymes with species. Which led me to wonder:
Do snakes poop?
Because if snakes defecate, then the Everglades must be awash in python poop by now. So wouldn’t that make python do-do—wait for it—invasive feces?
(I can’t hear you groaning so you might as well stop it.)
Well, snakes do poop. And so do worms.
I discovered this by Googling “invasive feces”—just to see if it’s a thing—and up popped an article about scientists who study earthworm excrement.
Yes, there are highly trained scientists, working diligently at taxpayer funded institutions of higher learning, studying the bowel movements of worms.
And as it turns out, not only are we plagued by invasive snakes, there are invasive worms, too, specifically a breed known as—and I would not lie about a matter as serious as this—jumping earthworms.
According to the authoritative website ScienceNews, they are also known as crazy worms, Alabama jumpers, and snake worms. Originally from eastern Asia, the worms have been spreading across America’s heartland and their poop is actually changing the composition of the soil—a matter of no small import to farmers—and they are voracious fallen-leaf eaters whose appetites are adversely impacting forests.
So while the expression “invasive feces” might make for a funny (if juvenile) pun, jumping worms are no laughing matter to mature adult scientists.
But, really, can you imagine? And do they really jump?
Well, yes they do, in a manner of speaking. When you pester them, they coil up like a rattlesnake and lunge, which, technically, is not the same thing as jumping—you need legs and Air Jordans to properly jump, after all, but let’s not get hung up on technicalities.
Jumping worms leave behind little balls of feces, which is normal for worms, I learned. Indeed, one of the scientists quoted in the ScienceNews article confessed that “a lot of soil I look at is worm poop.”
Something to consider the next time you’re tempted to cavort outdoors in your bare feet.
The problem with jumping worms is that their poop tends to concentrate all manner of undesirable elements, such as heavy metals, and as these worms spread (they are called invasive for a reason) they are changing the chemistry of the soil in which we grow our food.
So, yeah, maybe it’s not such an outlandish idea that we study these little wrigglies.
The big problem with all invasives is that they tend to crowd out native inhabitants, both plants and animals, altering our ecology, usually not for the better.
All too often, we have only ourselves to blame. Another invasive species—poisonous cane toads—were imported to Florida by sugar farmers to eat bugs. Now they’ve spread throughout the state and the secretions on their warty hides are toxic, the victims of that poison often curious household pets who end up at the vet—and many do not survive.
Brazilian peppertrees, too, were smuggled here as decorative shrubs because they are so pretty. Then things got out of hand, as they often do when you mess with Mother Nature.
And like most invasives, they are hard to kill.
Florida now hosts annual python hunts in an effort to trim the snake population, a foredoomed exercise akin to equipping hunters with flyswatters to eradicate mosquitos.
That’s the problem with invasions: There are limited defenses and victory is often not defined by defeating them but by trying to limit their damage.
My neighborhood homeowners association recently paid professional frog hunters (yes, it’s a thing) to prowl our streets in an effort to cut back on the cane toads, which breed in our (manmade) ponds and can be found squished on our streets, fresh kills appearing nightly.
The frog hunters claimed to have killed hundreds. But in short order the toads were back, croaking and threatening neighborhood pets.
One of my neighbors, a non-native species, herself, from New Jersey, has turned this threat into a nightly pastime. She and a handful of other neighborhood women venture out after dark with gloves and plastic bags and capture cane toads, then religiously follow the recommended euthanasia procedure:
- Carefully pick up toad, taking precautions not to allow the toxic goo they secret to get on your skin.
- Place them in sealable plastic bags.
- Walk them back to your kitchen and stuff them in the freezer.
Yep. That’s how we do it here in Florida. If you’re a cane toad unlucky enough to get captured by one of the neighborhood bounty hunters, your last memories will be of a freezer light going off and a sudden chill falling over your amphibious hide, goose bumps suddenly joining all those warts.
This is supposed to be humane.
Personally, I think we’re missing an opportunity here. Why not host a massive frog roundup, let them loose in the Glades, and see what happens when the pythons chow down on them?
What could go wrong?