South African lizards brought to the U.S. as pets have started to populate across Florida in the wild and could spread to nearby states, according to a new study.
Researchers at Texas A&M said the tegu lizard is currently found in at least two Florida counties.
The lizard populations could expand across the Carolinas and into central Texas, researchers said in the study, published in the journal ‘Nature.’
Argentine black and white tegus are breeding in parts of Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties and there is a small population of gold tegus in Miami-Dade County. Red tegus have been seen in Florida but are not known to be breeding, according to the Everglades Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area.
“They are voracious, omnivorous, predatory lizards that can live in a variety of habitats, but we can't know what is going to happen or how intense this invasion is going to become until the effects are upon us,” professor Lee Fitzgerald, at Texas A&M University, said in an interview with Reuters.
The lizards in Florida are armed with strong jaws and heavy tails used to attack predators, researchers said. They eat the eggs of American alligators, along with ground-nesting birds, insects and birds and pet food.
Tegu lizard owners describe their pets as big, calm and occasionally affectionate, Reuters reported. They can adapt easily to indoor environments, aren’t picky eaters and get along with other pets, but they can become difficult to manage as they grow, according to Reptile Magazine.
Fitzgerald said it can take years for tegu lizards to reach their full size, but new hot spots of tegu populations are emerging as more pet lizards escape or are dumped in the wild by owners.
“The most important thing that the public can do to stop the spread of nonnative species like tegus is to never release nonnative animals into the wild,” Jamie Rager, from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told Reuters. “Don't let it loose.”