Every morning, researcher Tom Jackson photographs the sunrise from Virginia Key, where he works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Some mornings, as he walks out to the shoreline, he finds the area empty and quiet. Other days, he spots interesting insects, plants, and animals.
During a morning walk last week, Jackson, who studies invasive species, spotted an exciting discovery under a piece of wood: a novel-looking roach. It was brown and large, he says; at four-and-a-half centimeters, it was “much larger than a palmetto bug.” In his decades of flipping rocks, logs, and boards, he had never seen anything like it.
Jackson did some online research and saw that the bug looked very similar to the Blaberus discoidalis, also known as a West Indian leaf cockroach, which is prevalent in the Caribbean. According to various sources, the bugs have been identified here only in trade, normally as lizard feed.
The next morning, when Jackson went to see if the adult cockroach was still under the wooden board, he found another surprise. Not only was it there, but so were two large "nymphs," AKA juveniles.
“Given that I found three individuals under one board, that probably says we have a reproducing population here,” he says.
Jackson has contacted the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to help him verify the bug.
Given that the roaches he discovered don’t fly, he says it’s likely they were transported as eggs in a box or package from the Caribbean. “Cockroaches have a special egg case,” he says. “They can cross through a box in Panama, which comes to our port, and then get out.”
But the fact that cockroaches like those Jackson found are sold here in trade — and for pretty good money — underscores the challenge of containing them. From giant African land snails to Argentine black-and-white tegu lizards and Brazilian pepper trees, species from all over the world find their way to Florida. Many of these species are invasive, threatening marine, freshwater, and land habitats. In the case of the Argentine tegu, the invasive lizard has long been a staple of the exotic pet trade.
“We’re a globally sourced, global transport hub,” Jackson says about Florida, “and in that system, things are exposed to each other and released into the environment, and that’s not good. It's a lot harder once they're here.”
Jackson plans to inquire at the nearby Miami Seaquarium to see if it has a new reptile exhibit. Perhaps, he says, the species of roaches he discovered arrived as food.
But for now, he's enjoying his new discoveries.
"I’m like a 4-year-old kid," he says. "If you show me something I haven’t seen before, I will put it in a bucket and show it to everyone in the office before 10 a.m."