RIVERVIEW, Florida (AP) - The Tampa Bay area seems to be a fertile breeding ground for an exotic lizard that wildlife officials want to keep from becoming the state's next invasive species problem.
More than 100 black-and-white tegu lizards have been spotted in Hillsborough County, mostly in an area south of Riverview, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The area is now considered home to one of three tegu breeding populations in the state.
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Wildlife experts tell The Tampa Tribune that some native species may become competition or even prey for the lizards.
"They have a broad diet and consume fruits, seeds, insects, snails, as well as small vertebrates, including reptile and bird eggs," said Steven Johnson of the University of Florida's Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. "They are a particular threat to imperiled species such as gopher tortoises and scrub jays."
The lizards are native to Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina, and they are an invasive species in Florida. Many tegus have been found in Miami-Dade County, and last year about 30 were rounded up in Panama City, where a breeder abandoned his stock and left them to breed in his yard.
Tegus can grow to be more than 4 feet long. Officials say that many tegus found in the wild once were pets or are descended from pets whose owners released them when they became too much to manage.
The wildlife commission urges anyone who spots a tegu to report it to the state's exotic species hotline at 1-888-483-4681 or online at IveGot1.org.
The state is closely watching the tegu populations reported in Miami-Dade, Polk and Hillsborough counties to learn where they may go next, said wildlife commission spokeswoman Carli Segelson.
"It's very difficult to determine population estimates," she said. "We're not studying populations as much as we are trying to assess where they are located and the extent of their range."