Exotic Invaders: Growing Tegu population threatens South Miami-Dade wildlife

(WSVN) - We’re going to introduce you to a large Latin American lizard with an even larger appetite. It’s called a Tegu, and its numbers are exploding here in South Florida. In tonight’s special assignment report, the Nightteam’s Kevin Ozebek shows us why these exotic invaders pose a huge threat.

You may have never seen one of these lizards before. They’re called Tegus, and the brush of South Miami-Dade has become their prime territory.

“I didn’t even know you could drive here!”

To find Tegus, you need to go off road, and you need a good guide like Rodney Irwin.

Rodney Irwin, Tegu trapper: “For safety, I have a cellphone, a weapon and a big black dog.”

Every day, Rodney sets traps baited with eggs.

Down here, his trapping luck never runs out.

Rodney Irwin: “Yes! We have Tegu.”

Just look at his back yard where he keeps the hundreds of Tegus he has trapped.

Rodney Irwin: “Just a bunch of dinosaurs.”

Kevin Ozebek: “In your view, are these even more dangerous to our local ecosystem than the python?”

Rodney Irwin: “I’ll say probably by a factor of 10.”

This here is a little one. The equivalent of a Tegu toddler, but they can grow nearly 5 feet in length, and they have voracious appetites.

Rodney Irwin: “If they could eat nothing but eggs, they’d eat nothing but eggs.”

And that appetite is the problem.

They gobble down the eggs of threatened gopher tortoises, ground nesting birds and rare American crocodiles.

A University of Florida camera along a trail captured this Tegu raiding an alligator nest and taking off with precious loot.

Carol Lyn Parrish, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: “One of the big concerns for us is that some of those could be imperiling protected species here in the state, and then, they’re also competing with our native wildlife for food and habitat resources.”

Florida Fish and Wildlife officers say Tegus have been spotted all across the state with most in Miami-Dade County, where there have been 4,463 sightings.

They’re native to Brazil and Argentina, but it’s believed a breeder in the pet trade released a few here a decade ago.

Now, Tegus are taking over.

Mackenzie Cahill, Everglades Park intern: “A good day, we can get anywhere from 10 or more.”

At Everglades National Park, teams of interns from the University of Florida are trying to keep a Tegu population from growing inside.

But in 2019, they found nine Tegus in the park — up from just one Tegu last year.

Michelle Collier, Everglades National Park: “Any issues that we have as a result of pythons, Tegus are just going to add more issues in addition.”

So for the interns, FWC and Rodney, the race is on to set as many traps as possible.

Rodney Irwin: “My best day? I got 24 in one day.”

Tegus can be testy.

Rodney Irwin: “Right now, he could bite me hard enough to pull a finger right off your hand.”

But Rodney still has a soft spot for these cold-blooded creatures.

While the Tegus the interns and the state capture are euthanized, Rodney sells his as pets.

Rodney Irwin: “Hopefully, I find someone who has made a conscious decision that they want to save a Tegu’s life and will take it into their home and basically treat it like a child.”

But that’s not the real reason he breaks through the brush and sets his traps.

Rodney Irwin: “My family were pioneers down here from 1897, And there have always been native animals that have been there for us.”

So it’s that love for Florida and its wildlife that makes him want to stop the spread of these exotic invaders.

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