Giant Lizards Rise In Fla. — And They've Got Quite An Appetite

Giant lizards are coming out of hibernation in Florida. Trouble is, Robin Sussingham of WUSF reports, they're members of an invasive species with a taste for the eggs and hatchlings of native animals.

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It's fight against invasive species every day in Florida. Burmese pythons and Cuban tree frogs are some of the animals that moved in uninvited. There's also this giant lizard, the Argentine black and white tegu. Tegus are coming out of hibernation right now and they're hungry. They eat eggs of native animals that conservationists want to protect.

Here's Robin Sussingham of member station WUSF.

ROBIN SUSSINGHAM, BYLINE: The tegus are native to South America, but now have breeding populations in three Florida counties. They're kept as pets but some escape or might be set loose when they get too big.

Brian Pavlina, a self-described herpetology enthusiast, pursued one into an armadillo burrow in Brandon, then he and a friend spent the next eight hours digging out the three-and-a-half-foot lizard.

BRIAN PAVLINA: These animals have very large claws.

SUSSINGHAM: They've also got a bite that's strong enough to crush your finger.

PAVLINA: I would much rather handle an alligator than a tegu.

SUSSINGHAM: Pavlina named his tegu Beast and kept it as a pet. But when state wildlife officials catch them, they euthanize them. Here in the land of scary critters, like alligators and water moccasins, tegus are not welcome.

Frank Mazzotti, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida, says tegus have a voracious appetite and they have the potential to harm the native ecosystem.

FRANK MAZZOTTI: We're worried about their proximity to one of the biggest nesting habitats of American crocodiles, their proximity to the last remaining populations of Key Largo wood rats and Key Largo cotton mice, their proximity to Everglades National Park.

SUSSINGHAM: And that's just in south Florida. Further north, they're also eating gopher tortoises, which the state lists as threatened. Mazzotti says it's going to take more money and resources to contain the tegu.

Biologist Todd Campbell at the University of Tampa was one of those who several years ago began sounding the alarm that the tegu had spread up to west central Florida. But Campbell was already swamped with work on other invasives.

TODD CAMPBELL: Well, I was working on the Nile monitor lizards down in Cape Coral and, you know, and had five other projects going on, one on Cuban tree frogs up here, and some anolis lizard projects as well.

SUSSINGHAM: Much of the available money has been going toward the Burmese python, the giant snake that's caused such a big public reaction since it was spotted slithering through the Everglades.

Campbell's student assistants spent the last two summers trapping tegus and caught nearly 40 in a rural area southeast of Tampa. But trapping the big lizards takes expertise and, again, money. Campbell figured that one way to get more money to put into the effort would be to turn the tegu skins into leather for things like belts and purses. He got a grant to look into that at his campus lab where he sifts through a freezer full of tegu lizards.

CAMPBELL: This is kind of what they look like and that's after they've been dissected, of course, and skinned.

SUSSINGHAM: The tegu is about four feet long, enough to produce an 8-by-10-inch panel of leather.

CAMPBELL: The scales are beadlike, so they're very round and small. Beautiful scales and with a nice, little consistent pattern.

SUSSINGHAM: Campbell says producing the leather does not make economic sense so far, though it might if they start catching a lot more tegus, and no one knows for sure how many are out there. Recently, there have been over 100 tegu sightings near Tampa, around remote agricultural lands. And that makes them like the Burmese python, Campbell says, because it's hard to know where they are and where to trap them, which means they're probably here to stay.

For NPR News, I'm Robin Sussingham in Tampa.

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