Invasive reptile worries biologists in Florida

OCALA NATIONAL FOREST — As if the latest reports of Burmese pythons, monitor lizards and Cuban tree frogs crawling around Florida are not enough to creep you out, there’s a scary new invader in town.

It’s an exotic lizard called a tegu, a 4-foot-long reptile from Argentina with sharp claws, a voracious appetite for meat and the possibility of tipping the ecological applecart. One was spotted this week just north of State Road 40 in Ocala National Forest, a place teeming with campers, swimmers and hikers.

Forest officials said the black-and-white critter was likely dropped off in the forest by an overwhelmed pet owner.

“We’re taking this very seriously,” said Carrie Sekerak, a forest-wildlife biologist. “A tegu is known to go inside gopher-tortoise burrows and dig out mice and tortoise eggs. ... It can tip the balance suddenly.”

Common in South America, tegus are one of the most abundant lizards in southern Brazil. The leather-skinned creatures have even been harvested for their skins and meat in Paraguay and Argentina. They also have been used to control rat populations.

Tegus are omnivorous and have a taste for native plants and small rodents, which are food for Florida snakes and raptors.

“So they are taking away a food source for those animals,” Sekerak said.

‘Oh, my gosh’

In recent years, tegus have become popular with exotic-pet aficionados in the United States because of their docile nature. It’s not unusual for tegu owners to let their pets run free inside their homes, said Kevin Enge, a herpetologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“A lot of people watch television with them sitting on their laps,” Enge said.

However, the animals can bite and will lash their tails as a whip if cornered.

Similar to other voracious exotic pets, tegus are now being released into the wild by pet owners who can no longer handle or feed them. And that’s likely how the tegu ended up in the Ocala forest. It was found by a group of state wildlife workers Tuesday in a remote area more than three miles from the nearest home.

“It’s probably an animal that got too big, and somebody got tired of it, and they dumped it, figuring it was a big, beautiful area,” said Steve Johnson, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida, who puts together the online newsletter Invader Updater about non-native invasive fauna. “And it’s a scary thing because tegus are very opportunistic feeders, and it will compete with the native species.”

Not knowing what it was, one of the forest workers snapped a photo of the tegu and e-mailed it to Sekerak.

“I said: ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s a tegu!’” she said. Sekerak told the workers to kill it, but the tegu was too quick and ran off.

First sighting locally

In 2006, state biologists found the first tegu in the wild in Hillsborough County. In the past few years, tegu breeding populations have been discovered in Miami-Dade, the Everglades and western Polk County. Last fall, state biologists caught four tegus in one trap in Hillsborough County at Balm Boyette Scrub Preserve, Enge said.

So far, the Ocala forest tegu is the first recorded sighting in Central Florida. Biologists fear there may be more.

Tegus’ penchant for gopher-tortoise eggs — a native Florida animal that already faces a number of dangers, including construction bulldozers — is particularly worrisome, Johnson said.

“It’s another insult on top of another insult” for the gopher tortoise, Johnson said. “It’s like removing a nut and a bolt from an engine. Maybe nothing would happen, but if you keep removing more nuts and bolts, eventually your car won’t run.”

Unlike many exotic animals, tegus can survive cold winters because they dig burrows and hibernate.

If more tegus are found in the Ocala forest, then it may be time to take action, Enge said.

“It’s hard to say how many there are, but we’re going to keep our eyes open,” he said. “If we see others, then it may be time to start an eradication.”

Speedy lizard

So what if you see one in the wild? Enge advises to kill it and give the carcass to Fish and Wildlife. The agency will turn it over to the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, where biologists will look inside the lizard’s belly to see what it ate.

Capturing a tegu would not be easy. The Argentine lizard can tango pretty quickly, racing up to 18 mph.

Tegus join a long list of non-native wildlife overrunning Florida for decades, including armadillos, feral pigs, Burmese pythons, Cuban tree frogs, walking catfish, rainbow skinks and rhesus monkeys.

Sekerak often will visit reptile and pet shows to check out the latest exotic animals people are buying because those animals eventually could end up in the wild.

“Florida is being hit by so many invasive species that it seems there’s no way evolution will be able to keep up,” she said.