In the wake of news about “murder hornets” invading the West Coast, the Southeast has its own scourge to contend with: an invasive, South American lizard that can grow up to 4 feet in length. The lizard has been spotted for the third year in a row, according to a Facebook post from the Orianne Society, a reptile conservation group, as The Associated Press reported.
The Argentine black and white tegus was first spotted in Florida, but they have now migrated north to establish themselves in Georgia’s Toombs and Tattnall counties, said John Jensen of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Conservation in a YouTube video.
In the video, Jensen explained, “Many of the public that encounter these often report them, thinking that they look like a baby alligator well away from the water. They eat just about anything they want, plant and animal matter.”
“Tegus will eat the eggs of ground-nesting birds—including quail and turkeys—and other reptiles, such as American alligators and gopher tortoises, both protected species,” according to the Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Conservation’s website, as CNN reported. The lizards will also eat fruit, vegetables, pet food and small animals—including grasshoppers and gopher tortoises.
The tegus’ voracious appetite means it poses a threat to native wildlife, especially protected species like American alligators and gopher tortoises. The black and white tegus have been seen hiding in gopher tortoise burrows and eating tortoise and alligator eggs, as well as baby tortoises, according to The Associated Press.
“Established from escaped or released pets, these large lizards are voracious predators that have been found consuming a variety of native wildlife in the longer-established Florida populations,” the Orianne Society wrote on Facebook.
The society said it believes tegus are able to survive the state’s winters, which means it has the potential to spread quickly. “It is critical to remove invasive species early in the invasion process to have the best chance of success,” the society said, according to CBS News.
The lizards weigh about 10 pounds and live up to 20 years. They are black to gray with white, speckled bands across their bodies. They also multiply quickly, with females laying about 35 eggs per year. They also thrive since they do not have many predators,” according to the Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Conservation’s website, as CNN reported.
In the video, Jensen asked for people to help Georgia officials stop the lizard from gaining ground in the state. Jensen encouraged locals to report any tegu sightings online, to help officials’ efforts in tracking and removing them. “If you’re able to safely and humanely dispatch of the animal, we encourage that and we want that information, too,” Jensen said, as CBS News reported.
The lizards are legal as pets in Georgia, so Jensen added that anyone who has kept a tegu as a pet and no longer wants it should give it to a reptile adoption group. “Releasing it into the wild is the absolute worst thing to do, it will affect our native species and we can’t have that,” he said.