Once again, a popular exotic pet is poised to trample Florida’s native species as some owners tire of caring for their black-and-white speckled lizards with a healthy appetite and a yen to be free.
Owning an Argentine tegu is totally legal. No special permits required.
But in recent years, the ones that have been released into the wild or escaped from careless owners have been on a sort of land grab that some fear could cause more damage than, say, the Burmese python.
“We feel like they could be just as big a problem as the pythons if not more so,” said Jenny Eckles, biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Davie.
The pythons have been the scourge of the Everglades, eating up everything from birds to deer while eluding hunters.
The biggest immediate concern when it comes to the tegus? They are egg lovers and they are inching their way closer to the Turkey Point nuclear plant and the nesting grounds of the American crocodile in southern Miami.
One of the two tegu colonies, teaming with more than 100 lizards, is holding ground less than 10 miles from Turkey Point and individual lizards have been spotted even closer, Eckles said.
The crocodile is on Florida’s endangered species list and the federal “threatened” species. The last thing Eckles and other wildlife biologists want is the tegu feeding on crocodile eggs.
Eckles has also heard reports of tegus taking up residence in the burrows of the threatened gopher tortoise in west central Florida. The tortoise population also relies on its eggs hatching.
The tegus have yet to establish themselves in Palm Beach County — only four spottings ever have been reported to state wildlife officials. The first reporting was in 2007 and the most recent in July 2012. Four lizards do not create a threatening colony, and these four sightings could be the same lizard seen on different days. The sightings recorded by FWC were west of U.S. 441 near Lantana Road.
But not everyone reports tegus — which look like a small snub-nosed gator with sharp teeth and claws and can grow to lengths of 4-4 1/2 feet — to state wildlife officials.
Sometimes, for example, David Hitzig at Busch Wildlife Sanctuary in Jupiter gets the call.
“We’ve had a number of people who have called us with animals they can no longer take care of. We’ve also found them running around,” said Hitzig, who credits the weak economy for many pet owners having to give up all nature of exotic creatures from snakes to lizards.
“The last wild tegu I can recall was in Abacoa… in Jupiter,” said Hitzig, who caught the beast by hand, a tactic he and others discourage the general public from attempting.
“People get this wacko idea that we’ll let this pet go in the wild and then we’ll go visit,” Hitzig said.
It’s likely that the two established colonies in Florida, one near Florida City, the other in Hillsborough County started that way and then grew. The lizards bond with their mates and females can lay 35 eggs a year.
In captivity, the lizards that are native to South America, can live for about a decade.
They can live in swampy areas, but prefer dry land. They love eggs, but will eat about anything from mice to beetles in addition to fruits and veggies.
Tallying their numbers in the wild is a challenge because they can live about anywhere. In the past two years, FWC has removed more than 150 tegus from public lands. But plenty of private hunters gather them on private land, selling them to wholesalers for pets to purses.
According to a tracking map used by FWC, nearly 400 have been counted in Florida City and 100 more in Tampa. Reports of one or two tegus have been made west of Gainesville, in Orlando, east of Ocala.
“They’re not terribly hard to catch,” Eckles said. “Much easier to catch than pythons.”
The FWC prefers to set traps baited with eggs. And the push is on right now to catch as many as possible to keep them in check before they go to ground for the winter later this month, she said.
Unlike pythons, who suffer in cold snaps, the tegu can survive in temperatures as low as 35 degrees and as steamy as any South Florida summer.
One tegu who will be easy to spot regardless of the weather: Tarasca, a 2-year-old tegu, whose owner donated him to the Palm Beach Zoo in West Palm Beach.
He fills the shoes of Raul, a 12-year-old tegu who engaged zoo visitors for years, said Emily Maple, the lizards’ keeper.
Tarasca, who is about 3 and ½ feet long and favors a diet of steamed sweet potato and hard boiled eggs, is still in training to do parties and shows.
“They’re very beautiful. They can be incredibly intelligent and they bond to you. I can see why people would want to have them as pets,” Maple said. “But they are wild animals.”
What is a tegu lizard?
Looks: Black and white with banding along the tail.
Length: Up to 4 1/2 feet in length.
Defenses: Sharp teeth, strong jaws and claws.
When it moves: During the day, hides at night.
Diet: Fruits; vegetables; eggs; cat or dog food; other lizards and rodents.
VIDEO online: Watch this creature move
What to do if you see a tegu
- Take a picture and call wildlife authorities at 1-888-Ive Got1 (1-888-483-4681).
To give up an unwanted reptilian pet
- www.southflherp.org does reptile adoptions and takes in unwanted reptiles.