Tegu lizards have invaded Tampa Bay area after years of pet owners releasing them into the humid swamps. Tegu lizards are native to Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay but are popular as pets. As the old story goes, people buy the tegus when they are small and cute, but when they realize the lizards can grow to four feet and are expensive to feed, they often set them free in the expansive Florida Everglades. There the lizards feed on just about anything smaller than themselves, including birds, tortoises, and rodents. The stomach of the tegu lizard contains an acid powerful enough to dissolve bones and shells, meaning that several endangered species are on the lunch menu for the rapidly reproducing invader. Tegus lay eggs in clutches of 20-35 at a time, and hundreds have been spotted by wildlife control officers and local homeowners.
Although the tegu is not dangerous to humans, they pose a dire threat to the ecosystems of Florida wetlands and nature preserves. Similar to the pythons and boa constrictors that have made their home in the vast stretches of swamps after being brought there from other exotic locations, the tegu poses a serious threat to the populations of native species such as the gopher tortoise, various birds and amphibians, and even unfortunate house pets. Tegus are capable swimmers, and are easily able to swim through the shallow marshes and cross the many small islands in a constant search for food. Sharp forward teeth segue to flatter molars, meaning plant species are also at risk as the lizard presents a predator they have not evolved to life with, and plant numbers cannot keep up with the explosive growth of the tegu population. Despite efforts from animal control to capture and humanely euthanize the animals, tegu lizards invade Tampa Bay area property unabated, largely due to the lack of natural predators in the area.
Hundreds of lizards being euthanized, no matter how humanely, is a gregarious misfortune, and one that can be easily avoided. The current explosion in tegu population did not start with the lizards themselves, but rather with uninformed pet buyers and owners. As with the now rampant boas and pythons, education and restraint for those who think a cute little lizard would make a good pet will go a long way in keeping the number of tegus in the wild and to a minimum, helping to protect native species and reduce damage to the environment. Tegu lizards are being lured and trapped using raw chicken; 28 traps have been set up by the Florida Wildlife Commission throughout the wetland conservation areas and several more are on private property in an attempt to curve the population boom, but there are still hundreds of lizards in the wild. Tampa Bay is home to the most recently discovered breeding population of tegu lizards, with others in the Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, and Polk counties. As tegu lizards invade the Tampa Bay area, keeping new lizards out will be a key in bringing the invasion under control.
By Daniel O’Brien