Can you imagine looking out your kitchen window one morning and spotting a hefty four-foot lizard calmly eating food from a dog dish in your backyard? Believe it or not, this scenario may not be as far-fetched as it may seem.
The reason for this is a large South American lizard called the black and white tegu is currently attempting to establish a beachhead in the Peach State. Currently the only known populations of the lizard are located in Tattnall and Toombs Counties in southeast Georgia.
The Argentine black and white tegu is native to Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Here they are not found in dense impenetrable jungles. Instead, they inhabit forest clearings, and mixed grass/woodland habitats.
Tegus spend their lives feeding on or close to the ground. However, young tegus are adept at climbing. During the winter, they retire to burrows.
Tegus are omnivores. As such, they consume a variety of plants; they are particularly fond of fruit. They will also consume the eggs of other reptiles and ground-nesting birds. They also devour a wide range of small animals, including insects. Tegus living near humans will gobble up chicken eggs and vegetables.
The black and white tegu is the largest of all tegu species. An adult tegu can tip the scales at 10 pounds or more and measure up to four or more feet long. Hatchling tegus are six to eight inches long when they first see the light of day. To date, tegus captured in Georgia average less than two feet in length.
Tegus will live for two decades or more.
Florida has been dealing with the spread of tegus far longer than Georgia has. Currently this invasive lizard has established itself in Miami-Dade County (southern Florida), Hillsboro County (central Florida and in the Tallahassee area (north Florida).
While we will probably never know how these voracious animals found their way to the wilds of Georgia, wildlife biologists believe more than likely they originated from animals that were released or escaped captivity.Currently it is legal for Georgians to own tegus. However, it is illegal to release one into the wild.
Although they are not aggressive, they will vigorously try to defend themselves when cornered. Fortunately tegus are not known to endanger cats and dogs.
Biologists are worried that, if tegus become establish across the state, they will compete with native animals for food as well as eat the eggs and young of reptiles ranging from alligators to turtles (particularly gopher tortoises). They also pose a threat to ground-nesting birds, such as the wild turkey, northern bobwhite, whip-poor-wills, and others.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has launched an aggressive program to eradicate tegus living in the wild throughout the state. This effort involves joining forces with the U. S. Geological Service and Georgia Southern University to trap tegus, record sightings, and assess the status of tegu populations.
It is possible for tegus to show up in Monroe County. Yes.
“They may be capable of living as far north as Pennsylvania,” said Daniel Sollenberger, a senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section,
According to Sollenberger, as of May of this year, tegus have been reported from 20 places in the state. Most of the lizards have been found in Tattnall and Toombs Counties. Roughly a dozen of these animals were reported in 2019. Two tegus have been trapped, two were shot under a bridge, and one was killed on a highway. Fortunately, to date, no eggs or young have been located.
The Georgia DNR is asking for our help in trying to locate and eradicate the black and white tegu in the state. With that in mind, if you find a live or dead tegu, report your discovery to the Wildlife Conservation Section office located on the Rum Creek Wildlife Management Area (478) 994-1438. Reports can also be made online as: www.gainvasives.org/tegus (https://www.gainvasives.org/tegus/. You can also report a sighting by email: firstname.lastname@example.org (mailto:gainbvasives @dnr.ga.gov.
If possible, take a photo of the animal.
I should also note, since the tegu is a non-native species, it is not protected by state wildlife laws. Consequently, they can be legally trapped or killed. However, animal cruelty and local ordinances apply, as do appropriate safety precautions.
In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for this odd South American reptile. Who knows? One might find your backyard to its liking.
Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at email@example.com.