TAMPA — The state is pushing back against a wave of leg-sized South American lizards that have homesteaded in the woods near Riverview.
Wildlife officials have begun a program using volunteers to scour the forest floors for tegus, an exotic species that has escaped the bondage of home terrariums for the great outdoors.
Enter the dragon ... hunters.
The number of volunteers is small, just a few dozen outdoor enthusiasts, environmentalists and wildlife lovers who want to make a difference in the nearby woods and pastures and swamps.
It’s not that they have an innate hatred for tegus. Many pet owners insist they are gentle creatures who make interesting pets, but wildlife officials say they don’t belong in the woods of Florida, where they plunder nests for eggs and other food that sustain indigenous wildlife. They also tend to muscle their way into burrows of native species, displacing the likes of gopher tortoises, indigo snakes and rattlers.
Until recently, the state had only been interested in studying the population in hopes of figuring out the best way to control their numbers. If homeowners reported seeing one on their property and wanted it removed, the state would recommend a trapper. But if a tegu was spotted in the woods by a hiker or hunter or fisherman, the state wanted only a call with the exact location of the beast, so officials could chart where they were.
That strategy has escalated from passive to active. The state now is amassing a troop of volunteers to help deal with the thriving tegu population.
Necia Godzisz, coordinator of the newly formed Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Southwest Region Volunteers program, said volunteers started signing up in October for a variety of tasks, and the first group went tegu hunting in December.
Volunteers so far have been keeping track of tegu tracks, taking note of evidence of their presence and peering into burrows.
They venture out with state biologists and help bait and set traps. They don’t actually capture the beasts.
“For the most part, biologists do that,” she said. “The private citizens just help. They go burrow-scoping, which is looking in burrows, and tracking, to see where tegus were. They help biologists with traps and look to find out where tegus are and basically help out where they are needed.
“They don’t wrangle them,” she said, but their efforts “are definitely doing something. Animals have been caught. They’ve gotten some.”
Captured tegus are euthanized by the state, and biologists are checking stomach contents to determine what they are eating.
Anyone interested in volunteering for the program can call the commission’s Lakeland office at (863) 648-3200.
On any given day, Godzisz said, one or two volunteers cut their way through the woods of eastern Hillsborough County. More than 30 have signed up for the tegu duty, she said. They come out when they can get an afternoon off work, she said, or if they have a free day.
“Each day,” she said, “it’s a different group of people.”
Don Corbin, a technology administrator with the University of South Florida’s School of Art and Art History, volunteered for the tegu detail because of his love and respect for the Florida environment and native creatures that live there.
He mentioned the indigo snake and gopher tortoise, both threatened species, that often share living quarters in the same burrows.
Those burrows, said Corbin, 49, are now being plagued by invaders such as the tegu.
“This is what encouraged me to be part of the volunteer program,” he said. “The habitat that I enjoyed while growing up is slowly being erased by such animals. They eat everything they can get into their mouths and take over burrows that belong to native species and erode the topsoil and banks as they dig around creating new homes; very destructive and ferocious animals.”
Tegus originated in South America but have found a home in Florida, where they have established three breeding populations, including one in the wilds near Riverview,where more than 100 confirmed sightings have been logged. The cold-blooded creature can grow to be 4 feet long and weigh up to 30 pounds.
They have a broad diet, eating fruits, seeds, insects and small vertebrates, biologists say. They munch the eggs of endangered gopher tortoises and even scrub jays.
Known in scientific circles as Tupinambis merianae, tegus are native to Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina and can be prolific if all the conditions are right. Females can lay up to 35 eggs a year. They are black and white with banded tails and spend most of their time on land, though they can swim and submerge themselves for long periods of time, biologists say. They are active during the day and will burrow at night to hide. They go underground for the winter and emerge this time of year to the warming sun.
Wildlife officials say if you spot one, don’t try to catch or kill it. They are not aggressive, but they will defend themselves with sharp teeth, strong jaws and claws.
Up until the implementation of the volunteer trapping program, the state just wanted people who spotted a tegu to document where it was and maybe take a photo or two.
Sightings still can be reported to a hot line at 1-888-483-4681 or online here. In Hillsborough County the population of tegus is located southeast of Riverview in an area bordered by Rhodine Road to the north, Boyette Balm Road to the east and Balm Riverview Road to the west. Within that triangle, 63 sightings of tegus have been reported. Twelve have been reported in or near the Alafia River State Park, about 12 miles east of the tegu epicenter, and the rest throughout the area.
Tegu volunteer Tim O’Neill, who travels here from Sarasota, is never far from the wild. He has worked with the South Florida Water Management District running an airboat and supervising exotic tree control in the Florida Everglades and Lake Okeechobee. He now carries a snake hook and snake bags in his truck at all times.
Besides hunting snakes, O’Neill has been on hunts for larger lizard species, including monitors and iguanas.
The tegu problem piqued his interest.
“The only tegu I’ve seen so far was actually down in the python area,” he said. “I was on a python hunt and we came across one along a canal bank south of Homestead. We were on bicycles and were amazed how fast it was. It was all we could do to keep up and then it dove down the canal bank into thick vegetation.
“Having seen this,” he said, “I would definitely state that capturing a tegu is a very challenging task.”