Tegu lizards invade South Florida

FWC fights to capture exotic lizards being dumped in Everglades

By Jacey Birch - Anchor/Animal Advocate

MIAMI - Tegu lizards are reproducing all over South Florida, and they're taking over the Everglades.

They are cold-blooded killers, eating their way through the Everglades and putting an entire species at risk.

Tegu lizards call South America home. But because South Floridians are buying them as pets, the large reptiles are the latest animals to be dumped in the woods when they outgrow their welcome.

In order to capture the lizards, traps with eggs used to bait the tegus are hidden in the brush throughout the Everglades.

They are a large-bodied lizard, very stocky, they're black and white. They have this white banding down their body, they have a fairly long tail that's pretty thick and then they have these long toes and claws.

They are similar to an iguana, but with a larger head and jaw. They could grow to be about four feet long. They appear to be harmless, but don't be fooled. The biggest risk is that they like to eat.

"These lizards are not native to Florida," said Jake Edwards, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). "Right now were trying to assess their risks and what they could pose to some of our native wildlife."

Tegus eat a wide variety of food items, everything from fruits and insects to small insects and small animals, but they also really like eggs.

"Tegus like to eat eggs so one of our concerns is that they might be predating wildlife such as birds, turtles, alligators, crocodiles," said Jennifer Eckles, of FWC.

This means that endangered and protected animals could be wiped out, while the Tegu saddles up to a smorgasbord of helpless animals.

Tegus may look cute when they're small, but they could grow up to four feet long, and that's part of the problem.  At that point, people may dump them in the Everglades when they don't want to deal with them anymore, and that adds to the overpopulation.

Similar to the pythons in the Everglades and lionfish in the ocean, tegus are the newest powerful predator in Florida's wetlands.

Florida Fish and Wildlife officers first spotted the elusive lizards in 2009 and began trapping them a year later. But they have only found 400 in four years.

But in the swamps of Miami-Dade County, there could be thousands of these hungry reptiles enjoying a food free-for-all. And it's all because unwanted pets made this their new home and began breeding and eating.

Dumping exotic pets is against the law.

"We do have a lot of regulations and we do have programs in place now so that we can try to take care of these situations before they become a problem," said Eckles.

But they are past that point with the tegus.

Dumping exotic pets like the tegus is a second-degree misdemeanor violation which carries a $500 fine and up to six months in jail. Florida Fish and Wildlife officers accept all exotic animals and often host pet amnesty days. To find out where to take your unwanted pet, click here to visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.

If you see a tegu, the FWC would like to know about it. Just call 888-IVE-GOT1 (483-4681) and report where and when you saw it.

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