The Argentine tegu lizard doesn’t grow nearly as big as a Burmese python but it may be a greater threat to South Florida’s native animals.
At a maximum size of four feet, a tegu can’t gobble down a full-grown deer or alligator with its rapier-sharp teeth. But the invasive, black and white reptiles have the potential to cause even more ecological damage than the 18-foot snakes that have drawn international media attention in recent years. And now, scientists say, it’s too late to eradicate them.
“When we first found out about them in 2008, we thought we had a chance to nip this population in the bud,” said the National Park Service’s Tony Pernas, who co-chairs the Everglades Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area group. “Now we’ve changed from eradication mode to containment mode.”
Long a popular staple of the exotic pet trade, the tegus likely were released by irresponsible owners or escaped from captive breeding facilities in south Miami-Dade County. Right now, the escapees’ epicenter is in the Florida City-Homestead area where federal, state and local agencies — with help from private trappers — are trying to round up as many as possible before the animals go into hibernation in October. Another distinct population has cropped up in west-central Florida’s Polk-Hillsborough county area.