Biologists worried invasive lizard will spread beyond Tampa Bay

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Posted: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 4:34 pm | Updated: 11:40 am, Wed Jul 23, 2014.

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. - We are continuing to follow a potential exotic reptile invasion. Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are actively trapping the Argentine black and white tegus.

The non-native reptile can grow up to four feet long and are now breeding in Polk and Hillsborough counties. The trapped tegus are humanly euthanized and studied to help biologists learn exactly what they're eating and what impact they're having on native wildlife.

A quick search of the Internet produces thousands of videos of the Argentine black and white tegu. A vast majority of the videos are of pet tegus.

The large reptile is native to South America but according to biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, they are now thriving in Florida.

“They were originally introduced, somebody had them as a pet and they got out somehow, now they have reproduced naturally. They are spreading on their own.”

So how many tegu are there in Florida?

“We don’t know how many there are out here, we don’t know how dense the population is, definitely things that we are going to be finding out here in the future.”

Tessie Offner is a Fish and Wildlife non-native species biologist. She has set out 28 traps in Hillsborough County, where the tegus have an active breeding population.

“They lay eggs, they can lay anywhere between 25 and 50 eggs at once and the babies hatch within just a couple of months of laying those eggs.”

Offner baits the traps with a raw chicken egg but says tegus are not picky eaters.

“They will eat mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, even other creatures that you might suspect would be hard for the animal to eat like small tortoises, things of that nature.”

Offner worries that left unchecked, tegus could decimate native wildlife population.

“We allow the tegus to move in and they have a free buffet and can eat as much of these animals as they can and that can definitely have a negative impact on animals that are slow to grow such as gopher tortoises.”

The other concern is how fast and far the lizards will spread. There have been five confirmed sighting of tegus in manatee and Sarasota Counties since 2012.

“They are spreading on their own and they use a lot of different habitats. They are not restricted by Florida habitat. They will go where ever they can find food.”

Florida Fish and Wildlife want help from the public. If you do see a tegu, keep your distance because they can be aggressive if cornered but try to take a picture of the lizard. Then report the sighting by calling the non-native species hotline at 1-888- I’ve Got 1 (483-4681) or go use a computer and log onto www.ivegot1.org.

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