This South American import has slipped into Florida through the exotic pet trade. Described by pet owners as docile and affectionate – a word rarely used with reptiles – the black and white tegu is native to Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina.
Last year, a resident of Panama City Beach who had a license to sell tegus abandoned his brood. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission managed to capture 33 of them in his neighborhood. Unfortunately, careless owners of these popular pets have allowed these large lizards to escape into Florida’s wilds, where they are settling in comfortably. As they grow up to four feet long, they’re bound to startle you if you run across one outdoors.
FWC reports breeding colonies of tegus in Hillsborough, Polk, and Miami-Dade Counties. Sightings range as far north as the upper Suwannee River and throughout the Ocala National Forest, along the sand ridges of the Treasure Coast and throughout public lands in eastern Hillsborough County. They need to burrow to survive the winter, so they are competing with gopher tortoises in scrub habitats. In addition to vegetation, tegus eat eggs – including bird, alligator, crocodile, and turtle eggs – as well as small rodents and lizards.
What should you do if you see a tegu? Take a photo if you can, note the location, and contact FWC at 1-888-483-4681 (1-888-IVE-GOT-1) or online at IveGot1.org. You should not try and catch the lizard, as it will defend itself. FWC uses traps to catch and remove tegus, so knowing an accurate location is vital.
Download the FWC brochure on Tegus
Photos courtesy Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission