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Invasive Argentinian lizard species poses threat to Florida wildlife

'I have captured 3,000 and I know I haven't captured 1 in every 10,' trapper says
Will Tegu hunt control growing population?
Posted at 4:28 PM, Aug 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-06 19:40:07-04

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. — The Tegu is a smart and relatively calm lizard, however, they are far from docile when you try and catch one in the wild during their fight-or-flight mode.

Their population has exploded in southern Miami-Dade County and the Everglades, and one man knows it all too well.

"I am 67 and feeling every bit of it," Rodney Irwin said.

Irwin is a fourth-generation Floridian. He's caught just about everything in this dense, tropical environment and has been bitten by everything, too.

"The mosquitoes are pretty horrendous," Irwin said. "You've got about everything that can bite you lives here."

To him, nothing has been more excruciating than the painful bite from a carnivore he first saw nearly a decade ago. The tegu is an aggressive, high-speed Argentinian invasive lizard. Its jaw pressure can break bones and Irwin has the scars to prove it.

"This guy could bite your finger clean off," he said.

He was the first to start trapping them in southern Miami-Dade County, just outside Homestead. Little did he know what would happen next.

"I have captured 3,000 and I know I haven't captured one in every 10," he said.

The number of tegus that could be roaming free here is staggering -- about 40,000, according to Irwin. He led WPTV right into tegu territory, where he has the perfect spot for traps.

"I've got 50 of them and in a good day I'll catch six to eight, sometimes 10," Irwin said.

Tegus hunt eggs and are wiping out nests of native species at an alarming rate -- worse than the pythons, Irwin said, because of their metabolism. He's invested so much of his time knowing time is about to run out.

Irwin is part of a growing number of trappers who will soon face several changes to trap and keep tegus. It's all part of a state effort to better track these lizards when they come out of the wild.

Tegus are also being stolen from traps and sold illegally. Another reason the state is after them is to control their population -- not just in the wild but in captivity.

"Because of the theft factor, I've pulled a lot of my traps in and relocated them," Irwin said.

For Irwin, that means these will be the last traps set. He'll be out of business soon when new state laws go into effect, making it too expensive to keep these lizards in his backyard. It's a decade of work about to come to an end, but the problem is just beginning.

"This is my home and I want to keep it as much as I can the way it has been," he said.

WPTV spoke with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission about new laws governing the capture of tegus and efforts to control their population.

Here is the FWC's statement:

Tegus are a high priority nonnative species for FWC control and response. FWC and other state, federal and local agencies, along with the University of Florida, have been conducting most of the removal efforts for tegus. The FWC employs several management techniques, including targeted trapping and removal of tegus. FWC staff and contractors work to trap tegus in areas of the state where breeding populations of tegus are established. The FWC also runs a trap loan program, with the intent of engaging homeowners on private lands with tegu removal under the guidance of FWC staff. In addition to the targeted removal conducted by FWC and partner agencies, FWC coordinates rapid response to tegus that are reported by members of the public.

Private trappers are still allowed to continue removing tegus and other prohibited reptiles such as iguanas with the appropriate permits from FWC. Trappers need to follow caging requirements to ensure that captured animals have a reduced likelihood of escape. More information can be found here: https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/nonnatives/rule-development/trappers/

The FWC is not restricting the public from helping to reduce the population of tegus and encourages people to report any tegu sightings to the FWC's exotic species reporting hotline: 1-888-IVE-GOT1 (888-483-4681). Tegus and other nonnative reptiles can be removed and humanely killed from 25 FWC-managed lands year-round, as well as on private lands with homeowner permission. The FWC works with partner agencies, research institutions, contractors, and members of the public to respond to and manage tegus on both public and private lands.

There are known breeding populations of tegus in Miami-Dade County, as well as in St. Lucie, Charlotte and Hillsborough counties.

For more information, visit the FWC's tegu website.