An invasive species of giant lizard is invading the Southeast and threatening native wildlife.
The Argentine black and white tegu is a native of South America and eats the eggs of ground-nesting birds, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. They grow up to 4 feet long and can weigh more than 10 pounds. They also eat fruits, vegetables, insects and eggs.
Wildlife officials are concerned that the invasive species will compete with native animals for food and other resources, cause habitat damage, and transmit diseases. Invasive species can prey on native wildlife, so the department has a strategy for conserving indigenous species and their habitats statewide.
The lizards also have few predators, so they can multiply quickly.
It is unclear how they were released into the wild, but tegu lizards are legal as pets in many states, so it’s possible a domestic lizard was released, on purpose or accidentally.
In Georgia, Department of Natural Resources officials began investigating reports of the tegu in eastern Toombs and western Tattnall counties in May.
The department is working with the US Geological Society and Georgia Southern University to trap the animals to remove them and assess their population. Trapped tegus are euthanized, and their diet and reproductive status documented.
In August there was a confirmed sighting in South Carolina, the first. Wildlife experts are asking residents to document where they see the animal so they can track its whereabouts.
The lizards are also known to occupy Florida, with official sightings in Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, St. Lucie and Charlotte counties.
Tegus do not pose a large threat to humans, but they can bite.