Most people are aware that the state of Florida is battling an invasive species that is threatening to wreck local ecosystems and wipe out populations of native animals. Since these animals are aliens, there are no natural predators to help check their numbers and they threaten to overrun the Sunshine State. Though it fits the bill, I’m not talking about the Burmese python (Python bivittatus) that is causing all sorts of problems in the Everglades and other parts of the state. I’m talking about a different, and less publicized invasive reptile, the tegu.
While there are several types of tegu, the real problem in Florida seems to be the Argentine black and white tegu (Tupinambis merianae). As their name suggests, these lizards are native to the tropical rain forests, savannas and semideserts of east and central South America. In their natural habitats, these lizards fill the same niche that monitor lizards fill in Asia. Tegu are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of plants and animals. In the wild, this would include insects, fruit, birds, eggs and even hard-shelled and bony animals like turtles.
The Argentine black and white tegu is especially prized as a pet. They are strikingly marked and quite beautiful. They are intelligent and many report they actually seek out attention from owners that handle them properly. Unfortunately, as with many other exotic pets, they get to be quite a handful when full grown and expensive to feed and house. A male tegu can reach a length in excess of 4 feet. Females often exceed 3 feet in length. Many owners, either thinking they are being humane by not euthaninzing their pet or who are simply too lazy to seek a new home for their animal, simply release these large reptiles into the wild.
Tessie Offner, a wildlife biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is quoted in a USA Today article as saying , “People buy these cute little lizards at the pet store and then they grow to be too big for an aquarium and they are too expensive to feed and then they just set them free in the preserves.”
Offner has spent the better part of three years tracking down invasive tegus and says their population is growing. “They reproduce rapidly, laying between 25-50 eggs at a time,” she said. With no known predators in the Florida ecosystem, it isn’t hard to imagine the damage these tegus may do in time. “They eat everything from plants to other animals with bones and shells – also, amphibians and birds,” says Offner.
Indeed, the stomach of a black and white tegu is equipped to handle the boniest of prey and even those with hard shells. Marvel Stewart, a volunteer at a Florida horse rescue site near Lithia, said, “We had a gopher turtle preserve on our 1,100 acres and now they are all gone. We see 4-5 (Tegus) per week on our property.” The tegus have grown increasingly bold and even burrowed into the horse enclosures on the property.
As mentioned previously, the whole situation with the black and white tegus mirrors that the Everglades is facing with Burmese pythons. Large, aggressive predators with no natural enemies can wreak havoc on a native ecosystem and should NEVER be released into the wild. I strongly urge any pet owner that finds him or herself in a situation where they can no longer take care of a large exotic animal to contact their local animal control department, zoo or even pet store to explore different options for relocating it. It may seem harmless and more humane to dump a snake or lizard into a forest or swamp when it faces the possibility of being euthanized, but it is not. What the pet owner must consider are the lives of all the native animals that will be affected if their exotic manages to find a mate and breed. Pet owners are usually true lovers of all kinds of animals. That being the case, it isn’t hard to see what is best for the environment and the native species that live there.
Source: USA Today