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Infamous 'Lizard King' of Florida nabbed in turtle heist

Striped mud turtles (Kinosternon baurii) are found throughout Florida. (Image credit: FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/myfwc/24233688722))

A Florida reptile dealer known as "The Lizard King" faces federal charges for illegally harvesting turtles from the wild to smuggle out of the United States and sell overseas.

The 54-year-old Michael Van Nostrand owns the reptile wholesale store Strictly Reptiles, Inc. in Hollywood, Florida. The business sells a variety of reptiles, such as turtles, snakes, lizards and baby alligators, as well as assorted species of amphibians, large spiders, scorpions and "exotic mammals," according to the store website, and Van Nostrand earned his royal title after penning his memoir "The Lizard King" in 2008, The Associated Press (AP) reported.

Documents filed in Miami federal district court show that Van Nostrand and his company established a network of so-called collectors to gather protected freshwater turtles from the wild, representatives of the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of Florida said in a statement on Oct. 5. 

Related: In photos: Tagging baby sea turtles

Van Nostrand then falsely labeled the turtles as having been bred in captivity, so that customers would not suspect that the animals had been collected illegally, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Collecting wild turtles for commercial sale has been banned in Florida since 2009, ABC News reported.

"Van Nostrand's co-conspirators — the 'collectors' — represented in federal export disclosure documents that the turtles were captive-bred, rather than wild-caught, which was a lie," according to the statement. Between 2017 and 2019, Van Nostrand and Strictly Reptiles trafficked hundreds of turtles, selling them in China, Japan and elsewhere. Freshwater American turtles are popular in some Asian countries as pets and as food, with some highly prized turtles selling for as much as $10,000 in auctions near Shanghai, Radio Free Asia reported in 2020.

One of the turtle species targeted by Van Nostrand was the three-striped mud turtle (Kinosternon baurii), an aquatic turtle with an oval-shaped shell and a body measuring about 4 inches (10 centimeters) long, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). These small reptiles have large heads, usually with two yellow stripes on each side. Their brown shells are also striped, though these markings are not always visible, according to FWC.

Striped mud turtles live in natural freshwater ponds and ditches where salinity is low; if the water becomes too salty, the turtles can't survive there, FWC says.

If convicted, the so-called Lizard King could face a fine of at least $250,000 and up to five years in prison, while Strictly Reptiles could face criminal fines of up to $500,000, according to the statement. Van Nostrand was previously convicted of wildlife smuggling in 1998, and he was sentenced to eight months in prison for buying trafficked lizards and snakes, according to the AP. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger

Mindy Weisberger is a Live Science senior writer covering a general beat that includes climate change, paleontology, weird animal behavior, and space. Mindy holds an M.F.A. in Film from Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.