Tegu lizards bring additional threat to S. Florida's natural habitat

6:10 PM, May 5, 2010   |    comments
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Just when you thought it couldn't get any freakier than pythons slithering around South Florida, along comes another reptile to brighten your day.

This one has four legs, sharp claws, is native to South America, and just might take down your chihuahua.

It's called the tegu lizard.

"We've seen a bunch of 'em and we've been able to trap a bunch of 'em, too," said wildlife biologist Dennis Giardina of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Just like pythons and iguanas before them, the tegu is breeding in the wild because people had them as pets and let them go.

Once they grow to be three feet long and turn from cute to slightly menacing, they become a pain to take care of, too, and many pet owners think it's OK to let Timmy the Tegu out the back door.

That's how the problem starts.

Now biologists have found breeding populations in the Tampa area and in southern Miami-Dade, in the farm areas near Homestead and on the fringe of Everglades National Park.

"We've been trying to figure out how far they've spread, based on what we know about where they've been, we've increased that by double," Giardina said. "We just picked one up about a hundred yards from the entrance of Everglades National Park last Friday."

That one, he says, ran across the road right in front of them.

Giardina's been setting traps for the tegu.

Since last fall, he and the team with which he works have caught 13 tegus of various sizes using traps.

There is one on exhibit at Miami MetroZoo.

"As a matter of fact, the large one we have here at the zoo was received during amnesty day, which is the day once a year when people can bring in their exotic pets, no questions asked, and turn them over," said Ron Magill of MetroZoo.

Compared to the ubiquitous iguanas, tegus are pretty rare, because iguanas have been breeding in the wild for many years.

Still, tegus pack a bigger bite.

They're carnivores, unlike their plant-eating cousins.

"They will eat just about anything they can catch and stuff in their mouths," said Giardina.

Magill says leave it alone if you see a tegu in the wild, because they will bite to defend themselves, and they can take a big chunk out of our fragile ecosystem if the population of wild tegus is not kept under control.

"They're really good at digging up nests and eating eggs, we fear they may be a predator of crocodile nests, other native reptiles, ground nesting birds, they do have that potential," Giardina said. "It's just one more thing that's creating a pressure on the native environment."

So the scientists will keep on hunting, hoping to relegate tegus in South Florida to the zoo, where they can't do any harm.

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