Exotic Lizards Creep Into Georgia. Don’t Expect Southern Hospitality.


Add it to the list of terrors of the natural world — including murder hornets and feral hogs — that have been disrupting life these days: The Argentine black and white tegu, an invasive lizard species from South America, has taken root in Georgia, where it poses a threat to native wildlife, according to state officials.

“We are trying to remove them from the wild because they can have negative impacts on our native species,” John Jensen, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said in a recent video while holding one of the lizards. “They eat just about anything they want.”

Eggs are one of the tegu’s favorite foods, and it’s not picky about which kind, whether alligator, quail, turkey or gopher tortoise (Georgia’s official reptile).

First spotted in the wild in South Florida in 2008, the lizards quickly expanded and found their way into the swamps of the Everglades, where they encountered a bountiful menu of native wildlife.

The reptiles have been trapped and killed as nuisance animals in southern Miami-Dade and Hillsborough Counties. Because of their white and black markings and bands patterned like a decorative rug, they are sometimes mistaken for baby alligators, Mr. Jensen said.

Since 2018, the department’s wildlife resources division has been looking into reports of the tegu in eastern parts of Georgia.

Department officials say it is most likely the lizards in the state “originated with captive animals that either escaped or were released.” Although Georgia permits the ownership of tegus as pets and they are popular in the animal trade, it is illegal to release nonnative species into the wild without a permit, according to the state.

Because they are more tolerant of cold than many reptiles, tegus are likely to spread through Georgia and “cause bacterial contamination of crops and spread exotic parasites to native wildlife,” the department said.

The invaders are also squatters. Although tegus will make their own burrows, “they will also use the burrows made by other animals, including our native gopher tortoise, and they may displace gopher tortoises in doing so,” Mr. Jensen said.

The Department of Natural Resources, the United States Geological Survey and Georgia Southern University are trapping the tegus, tracking reports and assessing the population.

The department is asking that people who see any tegus in the wild, dead or alive, to photograph their location and report them online.



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