4-Foot-Long Lizard Is Spreading in Southeast US

Hardy, invasive tegu appears to have begun its spread in south Florida
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 20, 2020 12:00 PM CST
4-Foot-Long Lizard Is Making America Its Home
A black and white Tegu lizard sticks out its tongue at the Yebo Gogga exhibition at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on May 13, 2015.   (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

Wildlife authorities are asking Americans to be on the lookout for a dog-sized, egg-hunting lizard spreading across the southeastern US. The Argentine black-and-white tegu, which reaches up to 4 feet long, is believed to have spread through south Florida after escaping captivity or being intentionally released more than a decade ago. But now they're beginning to reach other states. They are thought to inhabit at least two counties in Georgia and four in South Carolina, per National Geographic and Discover. There have also been more isolated sightings in Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. That's bad news for crops and native species. As National Geographic reports, the omnivores will eat "just about anything with nutritional value they can fit in their mouth," from low-growing fruits and vegetables to small animals.

Native to South America, they're also known to munch on the eggs of ground-nesting animals, like endangered sea turtles. In Venezuela, they've been dubbed "the chicken wolf" for a habit of stealing eggs from chicken coops. When not hunting for food, tegus are docile, making them desirable pets. More than 79,000 were imported from South America between 2000 and 2010, according to Amy Yackel Adams, a biologist with the US Geological Survey. It's unclear how many tegus are now living in the US. But one trapper in south Florida tells WSVN that he's caught 1,800 just this year. If many more escape captivity or are let loose by owners, "there is the potential for a very large population in the wild," Adams tells National Geographic. She adds "the entire southeast portion of the United States" offers a suitable habitat and is therefore at risk. (More invasive species stories.)

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