On the hunt for the tegu lizard

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RIVERVIEW, Fla. - Tessie Offner is used to hiking through the woods and dodging spiders for her job as a non-native species biologist with Florida Fish and Wildlife. She is in the woods daily looking for the Argentine black and white tegu.

“The Argentine black and white tegu is a large omnivorous lizard. They grow up to about four feet long” Offner told ABC7.

She says the large invasive lizard has a breeding population in Hillsborough County and was first spotted in 2006. Part of her job is setting and checking traps daily where she knows the tegus have been living.

“We are concerned with them because they are eating our native wildlife and we would like to know what sort of impact they are having on the wildlife population in the areas were the tegus are found.”

Offner says tegus eat a wide variety of food including eggs of turtles, birds, alligators and crocodiles.

ABC7 tagged along with Offner Wednesday morning as she deployed two new traps and checked three others in a wildlife preserve in Hillsborough County. Unfortunately, the traps she checked did not yield any tegus.

“I don't usually expect on a daily basis to come out and find a tegu so it is always a nice surprise when I do have one.”

Two raccoons were not as lucky as the tegus and were caught in the traps when they tried to eat the raw chicken egg used as bait in the traps. Offner quickly set the raccoons free before resetting the traps.

Since 2012 she has caught 75 wild tegus. She says it is believed the Florida populations were established from released or escaped pets.

Part of her goal in studying and trapping the tegus is to determine the size of the population in Hillsborough County. She would also like to see some type of of management plans put into place to give the FWC and the public some direction for dealing with the tegu problem.

If you see a tegu, you should take a picture, note the location and then report the sighting by calling the FWC's exotic species reporting hotline at 1-888-Ive-Got-1.