Though the Burmese python is arguably the largest and most well-known invasive species in the Everglades, it is actually not the species that poses the greatest threat to the wildlife natives of the area. The biggest threat comes in a much smaller package – the Argentine black and white tegu, a species of lizard that only grows to about 2 feet long, though some sitings have reported mature males as large as 4.5 feet long.
Tegus originally came to Florida through the pet trade from South America, and have only been spotted in the wild in Florida since 2008, where they first made an appearance roaming a trailer park just south of Miami. Whether they found their way into the wild through intentional or accidental release is uncertain, but because the number of wild tegus caught in Florida has increased from 13 a year to over 400 a year since 2009, their population throughout South Florida is definitely on the rise.
Tegus have been popular pets for many years, and for good reason. They are highly intelligent and quite beautiful – their black and white beaded appearance causes them to resemble a Moroccan rug – and they can even become quite tame and docile with enough handling and interaction with humans. Many tegus that are caught by trappers in the Everglades are even brought back into the pet trade rather than simply euthanized, because these lizards are so well loved as pets.
Tegus have adapted well to the warm weather and wetlands of the Everglades, especially as they have both an abundance of food in the area and an almost complete lack of predators to hunt them. The black and white tegus love both lizard and bird eggs, and have also been known to dine on small mammals, insects, and fruit – all items that are plentiful in the Everglades. This is not good news for natives to the Everglades, especially as so many species in the area are already on the verge of extinction. What makes these reptiles particularly dangerous to the local wildlife is their tolerance of cold temperatures, allowing populations to expand within large habitat ranges while also surviving potential deep freezes that, while rare, do occasionally occur in Florida.
Some scientists believe that while the Burmese python population is so well-established in Florida that it is essentially a lost cause, that there may still be hope for the relatively new population of Argentine black and white tegus to be contained and eventually eliminated. Like in the case of any invasive species, it was humans that brought them here and it is up to us to take them away before the species that truly belong in the area find they no longer have a home here.