Some very large lizards are roaming around Hillsborough County, FL. There have been at least 100 sightings and Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation agency is concerned.
They are tegu lizards, green and black reptiles that can grow up to four feet long and weigh more than 30 pounds.
Wildlife officials are worried that the ecosystem will be disrupted by a non-native species. They believe a breeder may have released his animals into the wild. Another probable cause for their numbers in the wild are previous pet owners who realized that these were not the cute little reptiles they purchased when they began to grow quite large.
"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 said in a statement, according to WTSP News.
Although they are native to South America, the climate in Florida is similar to their natural environment, and they are having no trouble surviving.
"Certainly we have a lot to learn," Steven Johnson, with the University of Florida's Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, told the Tampa Tribune. "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 continued. "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)."
The concern is that they breed so quickly, with the typical female laying from 20 - 50 eggs per year, that their impact could seriously disrupt the native wildlife.
"Although direct predation on native vertebrates - small birds, rodents, reptiles and amphibians - is likely the greatest threat," Johnson told the paper, "tegus could compete with native species for food and space if their populations became dense enough."
They are not a threat to humans, according to Exotic Pets, stating that the lizards are actually pretty docile. However, biologists are concerned if they are not dealt with, they could throw the entire ecosystem out of whack.
"We had a whole gopher turtle preserve on our 1,100 acres and now they are all gone," Marvel Stewart, a volunteer horse rescue worker, told WTSP News. "We see four to five a week on our property."
Since the natural predators of the lizard are largely non-existent in the area, their invasion is only going to get more troublesome. Animal control has made an effort to capture and humanely euthanize them, but keeping up is difficult, not to mention finding them.
The lizards are being lured and trapped using raw chicken; Florida Wildlife commission has set at least 28 traps in the wetland conservation areas and many more on private property in an attempt to curve the population boom, but there are still hundreds of lizards in the wild.
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