As if there weren't enough exotic species crawling around Florida, as if there wasn't enough attention being paid to muscled Burmese pythons, gape-mouthed anacondas and football-sized Bufo marinas toads, add to the list of escaped exotic pets the tegu, a little known, leg-sized lizard that is making it big here.
The beast originates in South America but has established a beachhead in Florida, and in particular, Hillsborough County, where confirmed sightings of more than 100 tegus southeast of Riverview make this one of three breeding populations in the state.
Tegus in the wild have been plentiful around Miami-Dade County, and wildlife officers last year corralled about 30 in Panama City, where a lizard breeder abandoned his stock, leaving them to breed in his yard and beyond. The cold-blooded creature seems comfortable all over the state especially, it seems, in Hillsborough County, according to officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is logging sightings of the lizard.
"Certainly we have a lot to learn," said Steven Johnson, with the University of Florida's Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. "But there is potential for impacts to native species by direct predation from tegus.
"They have a broad diet and consume fruits, seeds, insects, snails, as well as small vertebrates, including reptile and bird eggs," he said. "They are a particular threat to imperiled species such as gopher tortoises and scrub jays (tegus are capable of climbing small shrubs to get at scrub jay nests)."
Tegus, which can grow to be more than 4 feet long and tip the scales at 30 pounds, are known in scientific circles as Tupinambis merianae. The lizard is native to Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina and can be prolific if all the conditions are right. Females can lay up to 35 eggs a year.
"Although direct predation on native vertebrates - small birds, rodents, reptiles and amphibians - is likely the greatest threat," Johnson said, "tegus could compete with native species for food and space if their populations became dense enough." He confirmed that most of the tegus in the wild are one-time pets.
"People need to be responsible pet owners and do their research and make the right choice when getting an exotic animal as a pet," Johnson said. "And they should never release unwanted pets into the wild."
They are black and white and with a banded tail and spend most of their time on land, though they can swim and submerge themselves for long periods of time, wildlife officials say. They are active during the day and will burrow at night to hide. Right now, most are underground for the winter and will emerge around April to the warming sun.
If you're strolling through the woods and spot one, wildlife experts suggest you not try to catch it or kill it. Though tegus are not innately aggressive, they will defend themselves if bothered or threatened. They have sharp teeth, strong jaws and claws they use for defense.
Rather, the state suggests you take a photo, log the location and report the sighting to the exotic species reporting hot line at 1-888-483-4681 or online at IveGot1.org. If you see a tegu on your property and want it removed, you can contact a local wildlife trapper to remove the animal. A list of trappers can be found at MyFWC.com.
On that list is Jerry Richardson, a licensed wildlife trapper in Tampa, who said he's gotten tegu calls from different areas of southern Hillsborough County.
"I don't get called out too often for them," he said. "I've seen them in pet stores, sold as exotic pets, but I never knew that they had become a nuisance animal. It's getting out of hand now. They started down south and are moving their way north. In Ruskin and Lithia, they're real popular in those areas."
He said people often will report a small alligator on their property when they actually are looking at a tegu.
"A lot of people," he said, "don't know what they are."
Carli Segelson, with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's habitat and species conservation division, said the numbers in Hillsborough County indicate there is a breeding population here, one of three in the state. The other two are in Polk County and Miami-Dade County. She said the local tegus most likely descended from released or escaped pets.
The state said most of the sightings in Hillsborough County are southeast of Riverview, in an area bordered by Rhodine Road to the north, Boyette Balm Road to the east and Balm Riverview Road to the west. Within that triangle, 63 sightings of tegus have been reported. Twelve have been reported in or near the Alafia River State Park, about 12 miles east of the tegu epicenter.
Residents in those areas are asked not to leave pet food outside and to cover outdoor openings and clear the yard of debris to minimize hiding and burrowing places.
The state is closely watching the tegu populations, Segelson said, with an eye toward identifying the areas where they flourish and where they may expand next.
"It's very difficult to determine population estimates," she said. "We're not studying populations as much as we are trying to assess where they are located and the extent of their range."
She urged people who have tegus as pets, not to release them to the wild.
"We hope we are doing a good job of raising awareness to not release them or any other exotic species into the wild," she said. "It's not only bad for that particular animal, to be taken from a situation where it was cared for and fed and releasing it to fend for itself, but releasing something not native to environment is detrimental to the environment.
"We are concerned with this species," she said. "They compete and prey on our native wildlife and we are taking tegus very seriously."