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FLORIDA KEYS (CBSMiami) — The federally endangered Key deer, found only in the Florida Keys, has come under attack from a particularly nasty parasitic pest.
Cochliomyia hominivorax, more commonly known as the New World screwworm, is threatening the Key deer, a subspecies of white-tailed deer that live solely on the islands from Little Pine Key to Sugarloaf Key and a few small surrounding islands.
The screwworm, or fly larvae, feeds on animal tissue and according to Dan Clark, Manager of the Florida Keys Wildlife Refuges Complex, more than 50 Key deer were discovered infected by the screwworm recently, and in such bad condition, they had to be euthanized, including eight within the last week.
Images of the infected deer showed gruesome open wounds, covered in maggots, and deteriorating flesh.
Now several agencies are fighting back using the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT), which works by releasing a large number of sterile screwworms into the wild with the intent of decreasing the insect population.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, as well as partnering agencies, are implementing an aggressive eradication effort in order not only to protect the Key deer, but also to protect human health, Florida’s livestock industry, and other animals including pets should the pest spread,” the Florida Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services said in a statement to the media.
The SIT method has been used since the 1950’s and according to the media release, “there have been no known negative effects to people, animals or the environment.”
A stretch of land in Central America between Panama and Colombia, known as the Darien Gap, has been used since that time as a permanent sterile fly barrier zone to control the screwworm fly and keep it from reproducing.
“The United States currently maintains a barrier zone in the Darien Gap located in Panama, and this technique is used around the United States and across the globe. SIT is the scientifically proven lynchpin in eradication efforts,” their statement added.
From aircraft, large quantities of sterilized male screwworm flies are regularly released into the barrier zone to control fly migration.
Since the National Key Deer Refuge was established in 1957, placing the animal under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, the Key deer population has risen from roughly 50 to 1,000.
SIT would be implemented in Big Pine and No Name keys beginning on Tuesday, Oct. 11th, officials announced. Other response efforts include trapping the flies to determine the extent of the infestation and disease surveillance to look for additional cases in animals.
New World screwworms are fly larvae (maggots) that infest warm-blooded animals, including people. They most often enter through an open wound and feed on the animal’s living flesh.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has established an Animal Health Check Zone at mile marker 91 south. Animals traveling north will be given health checks at a station located at mile marker 106 to ensure that they do not have screwworm. This checkpoint will ensure that the screwworm does not travel north and infest other areas of Florida.
Residents with warm-blooded animals, like pets and livestock, are urged to watch them carefully and report any potential cases to 1-800-HELP-FLA (1-800-435-7352). Non-Florida residents can call (850) 410-3800.
Visitors to the area should ensure any pets that are with them are also checked in order to prevent the spread of this infestation.