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Tegu Lizards: Not Invasive Yet, but Found Throughout S.C.

The Argentine black and white tegu lizard can threaten native species in South Carolina, such as various ground-nesting birds.
Bernard Dupont
The Argentine black and white tegu lizard can threaten native species in South Carolina, such as various ground-nesting birds.

The black and white tegu lizard can grow up to four feet in length, and has become an established invasive species in Georgia and Florida.

Some South Carolinians are beginning to see an unusual visitor in their yards: a large, black and white lizard. It’s the Argentine black and white tegu lizard, a non-native species from South America that some people buy as a pet at reptile shows. But according to Andrew Gross, state herpetologist for the Department of Natural Resources, the lizard has the potential to become a problem.

“I think people go to reptile shows, and they get interested to have something different,” he said. The vendors at the shows sell them as hatchlings. “And as hatchlings they might be eight, 10, 12 inches long. And they grow very rapidly, they can be anywhere from two to even four feet, max. And people just aren’t equipped to keep a three-foot lizard in the house. “

The result? Remorseful buyers whose lizards have gotten too big to keep simply release them, or some may escape. These tegus can be considered an invasive species if they establish a population, as they have in Georgia and Florida. Naturalist Rudy Mancke said they’re not yet to that point in South Carolina, but their characteristics can help them to become invasive.

“They eat anything, they’re omnivores. And when you’re as big as they are - and they get to be four feet - you can take on just about anything. They’re like feral hogs in South Carolina, where they root around, dig. Pretty good diggers.” What’s more worrisome for the staff of DNR, he said, is that tegus can tolerate colder weather than most tropical species, which means they can survive in non-tropical habitats – like South Carolina.

Mancke pointed out the disadvantages of invasive species in any situation. Tegus can harm the environment by modifying habitats, taking away space from native animals, depleting local populations of native species. “They really take over.”

Grosse said tegu lizards can threaten ground nesting birds like turkeys or quail, or larger creatures. They have a preference for eggs, and Grosse noted their aggressive hunting. “They’ve got videos of them digging into alligator nests.” Scientists also examine the stomach contents of captured tegus to learn what they’ve been eating. “They’ve seen egg shells of different species of ground nesting birds, some of the songbirds that are nesting in some of the shrubs and low lying vegetation,” said Grosse.

Recently laws were passed to keep tegus from becoming established in South Carolina, said Grosse. Owners had until Sept. 25 to register their tegus to be able to keep them. After that date, “no new tegus are permitted to be kept in anybody’s possession in the state. No tegus or hybrids can be imported, no reproduction. Basically, registration lets you keep that particular animal for the life of that animal, but after that, no new permits will be issued. After that, they are effectively banned from South Carolina.”

Thirteen tegus have been documented in the wild in South Carolina, said Mancke, in Berkeley, Lexington, Richland, Greenville, Pickens, Darlington and Orangeburg counties.

Grosse said people who see a tegu lizard should notify DNR. Mancke offered a safe way to keep a tegu from escaping until it can be dealt with. “You can take an old sheet and just throw it out in the air holding the ends, and let it just settle down on it, and that animal will just stay there until people come. It’s hidden, figures nobody sees it. It’s a great way to catch an animal. I’ve had good success with that. That’s a safe way of doing it.”

On the other hand, he issued a warning about handling tegus the wrong way, as they can pack a powerful bite. “This idea of just doing things on your own, ‘oh, I can pick it up,’ I would be wary of that.”

Grosse asks people who see anything that looks out of place in nature, to photograph it if possible (and safe), and send it to DNR. In that way, they’ll be helping to preserve the balance of nature in South Carolina.

Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.