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The Tegu: Another Invasive Threat for Florida

Everglades and Turner River

Invasive species in Florida have a new face: the Tegu.

Item # 368839 in the unfolding human-mediated ecological catastrophe that is modern Florida: the Tegu.

Tegu_Mario Sacramento
The Black and White Tegu (Via UF Wildlife)

Cute, ain’t he? Well, that’s part of the problem. It is a darlin’ of a critter, for sure, and so folks want one for a pet.

Of course, their cute little lizard, stout and stumpy but pretty affectionate for a reptile, starts out as a manageable six or nine or twelve inches, only to grow, and grow, and grow, and suddenly you’re sharing your fifth-floor Miami efficiency with a three and half foot lizard.

So, being a moron, you do what any irresponsible and morally reprehensible pet owner does; you drive out to the edge of the Everglades one moonless night and drop of Mr. Snugglescales on the side of the road, wish him the best, and drive off.

The invasive species problem finds its most exotic expression in Florida, where the combination of a true sub-tropical environment as well as delicate indigenous ecosystems makes it a real biological battleground. While the Burmese Python, another exotic-pet-trade-gone-awry tragedy, has been getting the most press, there are other invasives that are potentially even more deleterious to Florida ecosystems.

The Tegu is one of these; a native of South America, and especially Argentina, the Tegu (pronounced TAY-GOO) is a ravenous predator with a taste for eggs of all stripes, as well as insects, birds, mammals, reptiles, and pretty much anything it can get down its gullet.
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The egg-eating is pretty worrisome, since there are endangered or threatened populations of ground-nesting birds, American crocodiles, and Gopher tortoises that would be very susceptible to the predations of the rapacious Tegu.

Additionally, the Tegu is pretty damn hardy for a reptile; whereas there is some hope that rare winter frosts may halt the advance of the Burmese Python, or at least keep their population numbers down, the Tegu is not nearly as delicate. It can stand brief periods of cold without much trouble, simply going into a torpor and waiting for it to warm up again.

This means that the northern limit of their expansion is probably considerably farther up than the pythons and other invasive reptiles in south Florida. In fact, tegu have been found (and, luckily, exterminated) as far north as Panama City, Florida.

And, unfortunately, it seems that Tegu populations in Florida are on the rise. According to this report in the New York Times, recent Tegu captures have risen from a handful of individuals in 2009 and 2010, to more than 400 in the past year.

One potential source of this jump is that some pet sellers may have been purposefully releasing Tegu in hopes of producing a viable native population, the idea being that a local harvest would be cheaper for them than importing the lizards. Pretty awful, really.

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Distribution map of Tegu Sighting, Florida (from http://ufwildlife.ifas.ufl.edu/REDDy/tegu.shtml)

Florida biologists have been engaged in active trapping and removal programs, hoping to contain if not eliminate the threat posed by the Tegu.

The Everglades, a National Park established because of the diversity of its native flora and fauna, is threatened by these lizards in the same way it is threatened by the Burmese Python; nonnative predators coming and romping unchecked through native, threatened habitats could irrevocably alter the Everglade ecosystem.

Hopefully, Tegu control measures will be more successful than those attempted with the Python, which has become so well-established in the area that there’s little hope of eradicating it completely.

The Tegu problem is still in its early days, but there is a potential for real disaster looming on the horizon if we don’t act swiftly.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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The Tegu: Another Invasive Threat for Florida