The exotic animal trade has once again brought a potential threat to Florida’s native species. Large, scaly and voracious, the black and white tegu lizards endanger the population of alligators, crocodiles and turtles with their hunger for eggs.
Researchers have now documented these lizards in the act of stealing eggs from the nests of alligators and turtles. In one case, hidden cameras recorded a video of two tegus removing eggs every day until the nest was left vacant.
This evidence of their harmful activity was published as part of a new research study performed by a team of scientists from the University of Florida, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, published this month.
Since their first documented sighting five years ago, the lizards, which can measure up to four feet in length, have now established themselves in Miami-Dade, Polk and Hillsborough counties. In the Miami area, there are nearly 700 reported cases of tegus, according to data collected by the FWC.
“Our primary objective is containment, and if we are successful in containment then we’ll be able to consider whether their eradication is possible,” said Frank Mazzotti, principal author of the study and science professor at UF.
The Burmese python, now a permanent fixture of South Florida’s habitat, has gained national attention for its ecological impact in the Everglades, despite efforts to eradicate the species. But Mazzotti says that the tegus have the potential to present an even bigger threat to the ecosystem than the invasive snakes.
“Most people looking at both species are much more concerned about the tegus than the pythons,” he said.
Unlike the pythons, the tegu lizards can survive in colder weather than South Florida’s tropical climate, making them capable of extending their territory to other regions. According to Mazzotti, there is a documented case of a tegu that survived a winter in Panama City, on the state’s northwest coast.
“They have the potential to make a serious ecological impact based on what they eat and their tolerance of cold weather,” Mazzotti said.
Besides the eggs, a tegu delicacy, these reptiles also consume small mammals, the study indicates. Mazzotti says the presence of tegu lizards adds even more pressure to Florida’s squeezed habitat, already suffering under the proliferation of invasives.
“The situation with the invasive species is such that we don’t really have the option of waiting to see whether the threats are going to materialize,” Mazzotti said. “If we wait, it may be too late.”
FWC officials have asked Florida residents to report sightings of tegus to the exotic species hotline at 888-483-4861 and, if possible, to take a photo.