Wildlife specialists are worried about the potential impact of an invasive species of lizard on Florida’s ecosystems. Though Gainesville isn’t affected, students’ hometowns may be.
The Argentine black and white tegu has made certain areas of Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Polk counties its home, threatening the local wildlife.
The lizards are part of an invasive species native to South America that can grow to four feet long and use burrows as their habitats, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“They’re really smart animals,” said John Humphrey, a wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Research Center. “They’ve got great eyesight.”
Tegus feed on small animals, eggs, insects, fruits, vegetables, and cat and dog food. The biggest concern is with tegus feeding on native wildlife, especially endangered species.
“We have a major concern for any of our ground-nesting species that might already be threatened or endangered,” said Jenny Keterlin Eckles, a non-native wildlife biologist with the commission.
Gainesville does not have a population of tegus, but there is a possibility that a population could form should the animals be released or escape captivity, Humphrey said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services Florida field station in Gainesville is working to improve ways to capture tegus.
“It is a growing problem,” Humphrey said.
But because of the small tegu population size, he said, there is more potential in its removal and potential eradication. The established populations were likely founded by escaped or released pets, according to an FWC brochure.
Jesse Chesla, an exotic animal breeder and UF accounting junior, said customers may be uninformed when they purchase pets.
“A lot of people see them as babies and buy them as babies and never research the pets they actually buy,” he said. “Eventually they get too big, and they think the only thing to do is to release them.”
[A version of this story ran on page 9 on 3/18/2014 under the headline "Invasive lizard species impacts Florida counties, but not Alachua"]