Giant South American lizards are taking over Florida — just one of the latest in a slew of invasive species that have colonized the Sunshine State.
Argentine black and white tegu lizards have been threatening native species and even targeting cats and dogs, leading some biologists to call them the most troublesome invasive species in the Everglades. Native to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay, it is presumed that the omnivorous lizards, which can grow up to four feet long, found their way into Florida via the exotic pet trade. Owners that no longer wanted to care for the reptiles dumped them in the woods where they then began to breed.
The wildly efficient breeders lay as many as 35 eggs at a time and have almost no native predators. They are also exceptionally hearty — the lizards can easily survive the cold snaps that kill 9 out of every 10 Burmese pythons, Florida’s most notorious invaders. In fact, they can survive in temperatures as low as 35 degrees, making them more likely to thrive in other parts of the country.
The colossal reptiles regularly dine on federally protected American crocodile and gopher tortoise eggs, as well as plants and other small animals, like lizards and birds. In residential areas, the opportunistic predators have been known to go after cats and small dogs, and are thought to be attracted to pet food left outside.
They also have a nasty bite. “They’re so powerful, they can crush bones in your hand; and if you get bit, they won’t let go,” said a WPTV reporter.
Despite the threat to native species, tegus remain popular pets and can still be legally bought in Florida for about $200 a pop.
As with Burmese pythons, local officials have been on the offensive, trapping hundreds of the lizards each year and encouraging the public to report any sightings. This May, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill targeting tegus and other invasive species, like lionfish and Burmese pythons. The bill allows anyone to capture and destroy invasive species on public lands and state waters.