Giant lizards called Argentine black and white tegus are coming out of hibernation right now -- and they're in the Tampa Bay area. Wildlife officials say the invasive species eat everything -- including the eggs and hatchlings of native animals that conservationists are trying hard to protect.
The tegus are native to South America, but now have breeding populations in Miami/Dade, Polk, and Hillsborough counties. They're kept as pets, but some escape or might be set loose when they get too big. They can grow to be about four feet long.
Brian Pavlina, self described herpetology enthusiast and wildlife educator, 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.
"These animals have very large claws and they're very strong," he says. They've also got a bite that's strong enough to crush your finger, and a powerful tail.
"I'd much rather handle an alligator than a tegu," says Pavlina.
Pavlina named his tegu "Beast" and keeps it as a pet, but that's rare. When state wildlife officials catch them, they euthanize them. Here -- in the land of scary critters -- like alligators, water moccasins, snapping turtles and sharks -- tegus are NOT welcome.
Frank Mazzotti, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida, says biologists know that tegus have a voracious appetite. They especially love eggs, and they have the potential to harm the native ecosystem.
"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, and their proximity to Everglades national park," Mazzotti says.
And that's just in south Florida. Further north, they're also eating gopher tortoises, which the state lists as a threatened species.
Mazzotti says that by the time you can actually document negative effects, it will be too late.
"That's the Burmese python situation," he says. "By the time it has built up to a size that you witness those impacts, it's too late to do anything about the population."
Mazzotti says it's going to take more money and more resources right now if they hope to contain the tegu.
One person who knows just how thin resources have been spread in this battle is conservation biologist Todd Campbell at the University of Tampa. Campbell 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 invasives species.
"I was working on the Nile monitor in Cape Coral and had five other projects going on, one on the Cuban tree frogs up here, and some anolis lizards as well," Campbell says.
Meanwhile, 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 was eventually able to hire a student assistant who spent the last two summers trapping tegus, and she caught nearly 40 in a rural area southeast of Tampa. But trapping the big lizards takes expertise, and it takes money. Campbell figured that one way to get more money to put into the effort would be by turning the tegu skins into leather and selling them.
"The scales are beadlike, so they're very round and small," says Campbell. "Beautiful scales, and with a nice consistent pattern.
Campbell says he'd be happy if they could just make enough money to replace the tegu traps, but 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.
Hundreds have been trapped in south Florida, but more recently there have been over a hundred tegu sightings near Tampa, around preserves and 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, he says, that wildlife officials will be managing them, rather than eradicating them. In other words, they're probably here to stay.