Invasive Argentine lizard species threatens Florida wildlife

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MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, FL – The Tegu are intelligent and relatively calm lizard, however, they are far from docile when trying to catch one in the wild during their fight or flight mode.

Their population has exploded in southern Miami-Dade County and the Everglades, and one man knows it all too well.

“I’m 67 years old and I feel it every moment,” said Rodney Irwin.

Irwin is a fourth generation Floridian. He grabbed just about everything in this dense tropical environment and got bitten by everything, too.

“Mosquitoes are pretty awful,” Irwin said. “You’ve pretty much anything that can bite you lives here.”

For him, nothing was more excruciating than the painful bite of a carnivore he first saw almost ten years ago. The tegu is an aggressive and swift invasive Argentinian lizard. The pressure of his jaw can break bones and Irwin has the scars to prove it.

“This guy might bite your finger,” he said.

He was the first to start trapping them in southern Miami-Dade County, just outside Homestead. He didn’t know what would happen next.

“I captured 3,000 and I know I didn’t capture one in 10,” he said.

The number of tegus that could roam free here is staggering – around 40,000, according to Irwin. He has led WPTV to Tegu territory, where he has the perfect spot for the traps.

“I’m 50 and on a good day I’ll catch six to eight, sometimes 10,” Irwin said.

Tegus hunt eggs and wipe out nests of native species at an alarming rate – worse than pythons, Irwin said, due to their metabolism. He has invested so much of his time knowing that time is about to pass.

Irwin is one of a growing number of trappers who will soon face several changes in trapping and guarding tegus. It’s all part of a state effort to better track these lizards as they step out of the wild.

Tegus are also stolen from traps and sold illegally. Another reason the state pursues them is to control their population – not just in the wild but in captivity.

“Due to the theft factor, I removed a lot of my traps and moved them,” Irwin said.

For Irwin, that means these will be the last pitfalls set. He will soon cease operations when new state laws take effect, making it too expensive to keep these lizards in his backyard. It’s a decade of work about to end, but the problem has only just begun.

“This is my home and I want to keep it as much as possible as it has been,” he said.

WPTV spoke with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission about new laws governing the capture of tegus and efforts to control their population.

Here is the FWC statement:

Tegus are a high priority non-native species for FWC control and response. The FWC and other state, federal, and local agencies, as well as the University of Florida, have led most of the tegus removal efforts. The FWC uses several management techniques, including targeted trapping and tegus removal. FWC staff and contractors work to trap tegus in areas of the state where breeding tegus populations are established. The FWC also operates a trap loan program, with the aim of involving landowners on private land with tegu removal under the direction of FWC staff. In addition to targeted elimination led by the FWC and partner agencies, the FWC coordinates a rapid response to tegus reported by members of the public.

Private trappers are still allowed to continue removing tegus and other prohibited reptiles such as iguanas with the appropriate permits from the FWC. Trappers must adhere to caging requirements to ensure captured animals have a reduced likelihood of escaping. More information can be found here: https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/nonnatives/rule-development/trappers/

The FWC does not prevent the public from helping reduce the tegus population and encourages people to report any tegu sightings to the FWC Alien Species Reporting Hotline: 1-888-IVE-GOT1 (888-483 -4681). Tegus and other non-native reptiles can be humanely removed and killed on 25 lands managed by the FWC year-round, as well as on private lands with the owner’s permission. The FWC works with partner agencies, research institutes, contractors and members of the public to respond to and manage tegus on public and private lands.

There are known breeding populations of tegus in Miami-Dade County, as well as in the counties of Saint Lucia, Charlotte and Hillsborough.

For more information, visit the FWC tegu website.


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