The Argentine black and white tegu lizard found its way to Florida like so many other invasive species: through the exotic pet trade. Growing up to five feet long, they are one of the largest lizards in the Western Hemisphere and have voracious and indiscriminate appetites. These omnivores feed on everything from fruits, vegetables, and insects, to most importantly, the eggs of many native species like turtles, alligators, tortoises, and birds.
Tegus are a serious threat to Florida’s native wildlife, and now they are gaining ground along the Treasure Coast. Unlike green iguanas, tegus can tolerate and even flourish in cooler climates, raising fears about further spread to the north. They are already in 35 counties in Florida and have been observed as far north as Georgia.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) trappers have removed hundreds of tegus from the Fort Pierce area and, most recently, TC Palm reported that a local man has captured at least 117 of them in and around his own western Fort Pierce neighborhood over the last few years. But tegus may be spreading faster than biologists and volunteers can trap them. This is prompting officials to urge the public to get involved, asking anyone who sees one to take a photo, note the location and call FWC's Exotic Species Hotline at 888-483-4681 so the creature can be removed.
Daniel Quinn, a biologist with FWC said in an April interview with local reporters, "We really need more people to be reporting these animals out here to help us with our management and trapping efforts to remove this invasive lizard species.” He added that officials believe that more people are seeing them than reporting them, and emphasized the importance of doing so.
"They're starting to make a foothold here," Quinn said of Fort Pierce during a news conference last week. "Since 2016, when the first tegu was reported, we've seen an uptick in reports. We think it's possible the population is increasing in this area."
Most sightings have been recorded west of Florida's Turnpike, with a majority of the reports south of Orange Avenue and north of Okeechobee Road, according to the FWC. Sightings have been verified over three miles apart. Sightings have also been reported in Indian River County though officials believe these are released pets and not part of the established population.
Tegu breeding in Florida begins in early spring and females lay up to 35 eggs annually. Eggs incubate for around 60 days and juveniles grow quickly. The animals have sharp teeth and powerful tails so it’s best to leave trapping to the experts. Also, as of April of last year, the purchase of tegus and green iguanas as pets is prohibited and anyone owning such animals prior to April of 2021 must apply for a permit and have the animals microchipped.