As Mike Perez mingled with visitors at the recent Python Challenge awards event in Miami, his left arm supported the weight of a black-and-white lizard with a body as thick as a linebacker's bicep. Gazing through heavily hooded eyes, the lizard rarely moved, save for sticking out its forked tongue for an occasional sniff .
"Draco" -- his "house" name -- is a tegu that lives under the care of the Zoological Society of Florida. Perez, the children's zoo manager for the Society, said Draco is "easily handled" and docile. But don't let that fool you. Draco came to live under professional care as part of the pet amnesty program which gives owners of exotic pets a responsible way to re-home the animals when they become too much to handle.
Far too many pet owners let loose exotics into Florida's wild. The Burmese python is, of course, one of the most high-profiles examples, but the tegu may give it a run for its money. The South American lizard holds the unseemly role of "rising star" in the state's ever-growing collection of exotic/invasive species.
"There's potential for problems and I fully expect to hear more about it," Perez said of the tegu's impact on Florida's already over-taxed ecosystem.
It's too early to get a definitive count of the number of tegus loose in South Florida. Perez said he could speculate, but emphasized that conservationalists are still in the process of determining the tegu's impact and "a lot of study needs to be done." Experts are using motion detection cameras, public reports, and other means to track the animal's proliferation. It's now known there are breeding populations in Miami-Dade, Polk, and Hillsborough counties.
Other known tegu factors include that it is well equipped to survive in Florida's environment, it's adaptable, and it's relatively fast at reproduction -- females can lay anywhere from 35 to 70 eggs in a year.
"They are very intelligent -- I don't like to anthropomorphize -- but they're very trainable," Perez said in a recent phone interview. "They are able to anticipate prey movement and where the prey is going to be."
Among the items on the tegu's diet are small mammals and eggs. Perez said eggs are of particular concern if the tegu -- which can reach up to four or five feet in length -- targets the nests of sensitive species like crocodiles, burrowing owls, and indigo snakes. Something else to know about the tegu; it's an athletic species.
"They can run fast and swim well," Perez said. "They're great diggers; they love to burrow."
The tegu's burrowing instinct enables them to withstand temperatures as low as 35 degrees. All of these factors together make for a formidable pest in Florida's native landscape. But before a member of the general public attempts to go after a feral tegu, Perez has a few words of caution.
"They generally are going to scurry away from people, but they can be aggressive if cornered," Perez said. "Their bites are really bad; they have a lot of jaw strength."
As such, he recommends following Florida Fish and Wildlife Conversation Commission (FWC) protocol anytime a tegu -- or other exotic invasive animal -- is spotted. Take a picture, note the location, and report the sighting to authorities. After that, call a professional/licensed animal trapper. The FWC states; "The FWC does not recommend that you attempt to capture the animal! While a tegu is not likely to be innately aggressive it will defend itself if aggravated or threatened."
Perez said tegus are attracted to pet food and "piles of debris" left in yards, and recommends keeping those items off property to discourage the animal. If a tegu is spotted, call the exotic species hotline at 1-888-483-4681.