Florida spends retirement capturing invasive lizards that threaten local wildlife

Miami (CBS Miami/AFP)

Sid Pennington decides to spend his retirement trapping invasive lizards that threaten the local wildlife in his community.

Bennington, 60, single-handedly captured at least 117 black and white Argentine tegus from the woods and neighborhoods west of Fort Pierce, where he lives.

In September, after the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission saw how skilled Bennington was at catching non-native tegus on his own, biologists loaned him 20 traps and recruited him as a volunteer. He was arrested on 31 this year alone.

“I grew up like a big creepy guy,” said Pennington, a former employee of the St. Lucy Nuclear Plant. His first catch was a female tegu in 2019, just under 4 feet long. “I don’t want them to be here. It’s cool.”

Tegu spread in Florida

With sharp teeth and scaly patches of black and white, Tegus may be spreading faster than biologists can hold it in. The state does not have a specific population estimate, but residents reported at least 132 sightings in St. Lucy County through 2021. Sixty percent of those sightings came from Bennington.

The South American lizard’s appetite for the eggs of native animals–such as killer whales, crocodiles and gopher turtles–and its ability to thrive in colder environments prompted a strong response from the FWC. If Tegus begins to spread northward, it could wreak havoc on native species already suffering from habitat loss and over-evolution.

Lucy County residents likely originated from escapes or releases from the exotic pet trade, according to FWC non-native biologist Dan Quinn. The species now breeds successfully in three other Florida counties: Charlotte, Hillsboro and Miami-Dade.

More than 12,000 tegus have been removed statewide from the wild so far.

“They’re starting to build a foothold here,” Quinn said of Fort Pierce during a press conference off Rock Road on Wednesday. “Since 2016, when the first tegu was reported, we have seen a slight increase in reports. We think it is possible that the population in this area is increasing.”

Most of the sightings were recorded west of Turnpike in Florida, with the majority of reports being south of Orange Avenue and north of Okeechobee Road, according to the FWC. The sights were verified more than three miles away.

Quinn said there have also been periodic sightings of individual animals in Martin and Indian River counties, which are likely released pets that are not part of a stable population.

There is strong evidence for the impact of tegus on native species throughout Florida. A lizard caught in Charlotte County had gopher tortoise eggs in its stomach. Researchers from the University of Florida in 2014 documented a tegu eating alligator eggs.

In April 2021, the FWC deemed Tegus a “high risk” species and banned their possession or breeding. Tegus remaining in captivity can live out the rest of their lives, but any future sales are prohibited.

Quinn said Tegus are lured into traps by chicken eggs and then killed humanely.

“The vast majority of the viewings (in St. Lucy County) have occurred in the past two years,” Quinn said.

FWC is seeking help from the public

When it comes to removing invasive species, the state’s wildlife biologists have their hands full. The FWC has removed thousands of Burmese pythons from the Everglades, oversaw a statewide, multi-year effort to kill lionfish from Florida waters, and actively encouraged iguana removal.

Tegus is now the latest animal on the list of problem species, and the state has spent nearly $1.3 million since 2016 to reduce the population, according to FWC spokesperson Lisa Thompson. A female tegu can lay up to 35 eggs per year.

As temperatures rise with climate change, invasive cold-blooded species will spread wider and faster. The population of Tegus, for example, has already been recorded in Georgia.

Last week, FWC outreach teams sent 3,800 letters of mail to St. Lucy County homes near where Tiggo sightings were documented and put up five informational signs along busy roads. They have also visited hundreds of homes in the area, distributing brochures that read, “How you can help stop the spread of the invasive lizard.”

Quinn said the goal is to inform the public and encourage documentation of verified reports.

“We suspect more people are seeing them and not reporting them,” he said.

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