Exotic Invaders: Rising tegu, iguana population in South Florida threaten native wildlife

(WSVN) - Signs are pointing to an explosion of iguanas and other invasive lizards living in South Florida and, as the Nightteam’s Kevin Ozebek reports, these exotic invaders are doing serious damage.

They are scaly, cold blooded invasive reptiles from South America, and they are now overrunning South Florida.

Rodney Irwin, lizard hunter: “They’re just going to overwhelm us by sheer numbers.”

Iguanas and tegu lizards are taking over businesses, backyards and South Florida habitats.

Rodney Irwin: “They’ve gone from being, ‘Oh, there’s a pretty colorful animal, and the tourists love them!’ That has now progressed to the point where everyone is tired of seeing them.”

Lizard hunter Rodney Irwin says he has seen a huge increase in the black and white tegu population since we went hunting with him last year.

Another trapper, Carlos Michaelsen, says the tegu population is now spreading from rural Southwest Miami-Dade into more urban areas like Doral.

So, we have only been out here for 10 minutes. Three traps have been checked, and we already have found two tegus.

Kevin Ozebek: “How many tegus have you trapped this year?”

Carlos Michaelsen, tegu trapper: “Easily over 1,800 tegus just this year.”

For Carlos, the hunt is personal.

Carlos Michaelsen: “We created this albino, which is a world’s first.”

He breeds exotically colored tegus unlike the ones running wild in South Florida.

Carlos Michaelsen: “This isn’t something that could live in the wild. ”

He knows irresponsible tegu owners are to blame for releasing them here.

Now, they’re eating the eggs of native wildlife.

Carlos spends more than 20 hours a week trapping tegu on the outskirts of Everglades National Park to protect the threatened reptiles and birds inside.

Carlos Michaelsen: “I feel as a breeder and a keeper of the species, I have a moral obligation.”

Despite his hard work, a record 34 tegus were found in the park this year, but when it comes to numbers, the iguana population is out of control.

Carlos Michaelsen: “They have one defense mechanism, and that is run like hell.”

In the past two months, Rodney has removed nearly 500 iguanas from the wild.

Just a tiny fraction of the nearly 20,000 reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission over the past few years.

“Without a doubt, the iguana population is exploding.”

“For every one that you see, there might be 30 of them within a half mile that you don’t see.”

They are not just annoying. Iguanas threaten our infrastructure.

The South Florida Water Management District says iguanas dig deep burrows which can weaken canal walls, and the problem is spreading.

Michelle Miller, University of Florida: “The warmer it gets, the further north these animals should be able to disperse.”

Iguanas here have abundant food and few predators.

They were first spotted in South Florida back in the 1960s. Cold snaps would kill many and keep their numbers in check.

Michelle Miller: “It definitely helps if we have a hard frost.”

But we have not experienced cold enough temperatures to kill iguanas in five years.

Combine that with the fact they can lay up to 70 eggs a year, and you have a recipe ripe for a reptile boom.

FWC is looking for ways to reduce the number of both lizards.

Carol Lyn Parrish, FWC: “I would say FWC is considering all options right now. Non-native species are a priority for us.”

The agency could impose strict requirements for people who own or breed the lizards or potentially go as far as an all out ban.

What’s for sure is, right now, we’re living in an invasive lizard hotspot!

Rodney Irwin “For every one you see now is going to be four next year.”

And you can expect to keep seeing even more of these exotic invaders.

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