Florida’s invasive tegu lizards survive the cold and eat baby turtles


WEST PALM BEACH, Florida – The Argentinian black and white tegu multiply and mobilize in the woods and backyards of the Sunshine State – a creature more menacing than pythons because of its cold hardiness and blind palate.

Wildlife officials have for years warned against the expansion of the tegu in the favorable subtropical climate of southern Florida, but now the unusually intelligent reptile is colonizing as far north as St. Lucia County with a appetite for everything from baby gopher turtles to bananas.

This month, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is meeting with federal officials, landowners and academic researchers to discuss reducing the population of Saint Lucia and preventing the tegu problem as a whole.

But it is a race that they may already be losing.

In 2019, 1,425 tegus were removed from the wild, more than double the number trapped in 2015.

“It doesn’t seem like we’ve learned a lesson from our experience with pythons,” said Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife at the University of Florida, who leads the Croc Docs research team. “If you wait to see the impact of an animal, it is too late.”

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UF circulated an updated factsheet on the tegu invasion in Florida this month, raising another red flag stating that “additional resources are essential to address the tegu problem on a larger scale.”

Freed and escaped pets as well as unscrupulous dealers are responsible for the seeding of the tegu spread, Mazzotti said. One of its main concerns is the tegu’s appetite for eggs, be it sea turtle, crocodile, alligator, marbled turtle, or bird.

An analysis of the stomach contents of 124 tegus included frogs, toads, lizards, snakes, turtles and small mammals. Endangered waffle turtle hatchlings have been found in the gut of five tegus in central Florida.

Tarasca, a tegu lizard, is held by Emily Maple, right, a reptile animal keeper at the Palm Beach Zoo. Tegus cannot be imported into Florida, but are not federally listed as “noxious” wild animals, which means they can be legally introduced into other states where it is permitted. (© 2013 The Palm Beach Post)

TEGUS WILL EAT EVERYTHING

“It’s the first creature I’ve ever worked with that eats anything, really anything,” Mazzotti said. “Because they can live in so many more places and eat anything, there won’t be much to stop them.”

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Mazzotti said her research team was stunned in 2019 when she asked the community for help identifying Nile monitor lizards in Palm Beach County and half of the photos sent were tegus.

“Palm Beach County really surprised us,” he said.

The invasive species tracking website EDDMaps lists 43 tegu sightings in Palm Beach County since 2009. The most recent report was released in May when a City of West Palm Beach employee found a tegu in the area. Grassy Waters Preserve parking lot.

That is compared to 6,008 reports in Miami-Dade County and 245 in Charlotte County. Both counties have known breeding populations.

Tegus have also been reported in four counties in Georgia.

“Research and risk assessments conducted show that the tegus has a strong potential to become the next Burmese python in Florida,” said Larry Williams, Florida Ecological Services Supervisor for the USGS.

TEGUS HAS APPROVED TEETH AND CAN REACH 4.5 FEET IN LENGTH

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Tegus bred from hatchlings are considered pets by some reptile fans. They can be trained at home and “love to be cuddled,” Mazzotti said.

They also have sharp teeth and claws and can reach a length of 4.5 feet.

Although there is no management plan for the tegu in Florida, the FWC in February approved license changes that target 16 non-native reptiles, including the tegu. The changes require tegu owners to chip their pets with property information and register them through a free authorization process.

Additionally, as of last April, no new pet tegus can be acquired in Florida, but current pets can live with their owners until they die. Tegus cannot be imported into Florida, but are not federally listed as “noxious” wildlife, meaning they can be legally introduced to other states where it is allowed.

It wasn’t until 2019 that state and federal authorities began to draft a python management plan. This was almost two decades after pythons were first reported to have an established population in Everglades National Park. In 2012, US Fish and Wildlife listed them as a pest, banning import and shipping.

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A management plan describes the history of the species, ecological and economic impacts, range, control methods and how the different agencies will work together.

Mazzotti said the plans are invaluable in putting all the agencies on the same page.

“It’s not that we don’t know what to do, it’s that we don’t have the resources,” he said. “We have to stop waiting for something terrible to happen before we react.”

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