Giant, invasive lizard threatens Florida

Reptile Rescue Coordinator Tom Bunsell handles an Argentine black and white tegu at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Considered one of the most invasive reptiles staking claim in Florida, the Argentine tegu threatens birds, alligators and pets and could be more destructive than Burmese pythons, whose robust population has lead wildlife officials to sanction state sponsored snake hunts to reduce their numbers.

While Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials are concerned about the growing population of the invasive lizard, there are no eradication efforts in place like those for the problematic python, according to WFTS.

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The black and white lizard has sharp teeth, strong jaws and pointed claws. They grow up to four feet long, can be purchased at pet stores and when they become too unwieldy, pet owners typically dump them.

Although not aggressive the lizard will defend itself if threatened.

"A big lizard can be a very exciting animal for a young kid to run across, they want to catch it," Lewis Single, who works in the herpetology department at a Tampa zoo, told WFTS. "If they want to grab a large tegu, they could get sent to the hospital."

Biologists captured 13 of the reptiles in 2009. By 2015, 760 were trapped and released to track their movements, according to the Miami Herald. Trappers believe the population now number in the thousands.

"They're not staying put. And the capture rates don't look like they're diminishing yet," Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida biologist leading tracking efforts, told the Herald.

The reptile, which can lay up to 35 eggs in a year, is native to South America and has found two nesting areas in Florida, the Tampa area in Hillsborough County as well as Florida City near the Everglades in Miami-Dade. The hatchlings are born in early summer.

“Government comes up with all the reasons why it can’t act faster, but the tegus don’t care,” Mazzoti said. “They can’t say we understand there are budget problems so we won’t reproduce this year. No, that’s not how it works.”

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