Wildlife officials in southwest Florida are setting out traps to catch a giant invasive lizard they say is taking over habitat and could threaten native and endangered species.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has confirmed more than 100 sightings of the tegu lizard throughout Hillsborough County, according to ABC’s Tampa Bay affiliate WFTS-TV.
The Argentine black and white tegu, Tupinambis merianae, is an invasive species in Florida, and can reach up to four feet in length, according to the Fish and Wildlife Commission. An average mature female tegu lays around 35 eggs a year, officials said, urging Floridians not to release exotic species into the wild.
According to Exotic Pets, the lizards are pretty docile. Nonetheless, invasive species tend to wreak havoc on local flora and fauna. Biologists fear that if the lizard is allowed to reproduce freely, it could throw the whole ecosystem out of whack.
“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, “ FWC biologist Tessie Offner told local news channel WTSP.
Others probably escaped from captive breeding facilities in south Miami-Dade County. Biologists hope to capture as many tegus as they can before the lizards make their way into neighboring Everglades National Park.
“They eat everything from plants to other animals with bones and shells- also amphibians, and birds.”
Breeding populations of tegus have now been discovered in three Florida counties- Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Polk. The lizards have no known predators in Florida.
Florida is no stranger to invasive species. Since the 1990’s, several species of giant constrictor snakes, such as the Burmese python, have established populations in the Everglades. The snakes grow rapidly and threaten native bird, reptile, and rodent populations, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
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