Cameras in Florida have caught tegu lizards stealing eggs from alligator nests, raising concerns among wildlife officials about the threat the invasive lizard poses to native species.
Researchers at the University of Florida set up cameras monitoring two nests in the Everglades during the spring and summer of 2013. What they captured confirmed their suspicions: The non-native lizard is preying on native species’ eggs, threatening major ecological damage.
“Between August 12 and 18, we captured images of tegus removing 0–2 eggs per day until an examination of the nest on August 19 revealed no remaining alligator eggs,” head researcher and University of Florida professor Frank Mazzotti wrote in the report. “We did not capture images of any other nest predator during egg incubation.”
The Argentine black-and-white tegu is native to South America and can reach 4 to 5 feet in length. The species first arrived in the U.S. in the early 2000s as a pet, and has become increasingly common in South Florida after apparently escaping or being released into the wild by pet owners.
With the capacity to lay up to 30 eggs per clutch and the ability to withstand long winters by burrowing, the hardy species has already seen a population explosion.
“Any species that is a predator and eats high up the food chain and is introduced into a novel environment has potential for causing serious ecological damage,” Mazzotti told the Toronto Sun.
The tegu joins an expanding list of invasive species in Florida — including most prominently Burmese python, which, like the tegu, came to the U.S. as a pet.
“South Florida is vulnerable to invasion by non-native reptiles because it has major sources of non-native species from the pet trade (port of entry, captive breeders, and animal dealers), peninsula geography, subtropical climate, and large areas of disturbed habitats,” the study said.
The Burmese python has already invaded ecosystems in Florida, decimating various native species and growing large enough to take down prey as big as alligators. But Mazzotti says the University of Florida study shows tegus may rival Burmese pythons in the damage they can do.
“Most people looking at both species are much more concerned about the tegus than the pythons,” Mazzotti told the Miami Herald. “They have the potential to make a serious ecological impact based on what they eat and their tolerance of cold weather.”
A voracious eater, the lizard poses a threat to several federally-protected animals, including Eastern indigo snakes, Cape Sable seaside sparrow, and gopher tortoises, the report said.
If the lizard expands its habitat, other species could be at risk, including sea turtles, shore birds and ground-nesting migratory birds.
According to the Scientific American, more than 400 tegus have been captured in South Florida in the last year; the population is now estimated to be in the thousands. Mazzotti says scientists will be “removing and euthanizing” the lizards to prevent further damage to the environment.
“As we are learning they become a problem as soon as we find them,” Mazzotti told Mashable. “If we wait for potential problems to become real problems it is too late.”