Black and White Tegu Lizard Spotted for First Time in South Carolina

The non-native species could harm local wildlife.

tegu lizard
Tegu lizards can grow up to 4 feet long.

 Dustin Smith

Wildlife officials in South Carolina have confirmed the first area sighting of a black and white tegu lizard. The large non-native species could have a negative impact on local wildlife.

South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) received information about a large lizard walking through a residential area in Lexington County.

"The caller said they knew it wasn’t a native species and thought it was a black and white tegu," Andrew Grosse, SCDNR reptile and amphibian conservation coordinator, tells Treehugger.

The dead animal was provided to SCDNR for identification. It was an adult female measuring about 2.5 feet long.

The Argentine black and white tegu (Salvator merianae) is the largest of all tegu species, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. It can grow up to 4 feet long and weigh 10 pounds. The lizard is native to Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina.

They're popular as pets, but don't live in the wild. They have established themselves in nearby Georgia and Florida where wildlife experts have warned of the dangers of the non-native species.

In Georgia, wildlife officials encourage residents to "humanely dispatch the animal" if they spot them.

This is the first sighting in South Carolina.

"Non-native species introduced to our state can compete with our native wildlife species for resources, cause habitat damage, and may transmit disease," Grosse says. "Additionally, tegus are voracious omnivorous lizards that eat a variety of prey, including native birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians, fruits, vegetables, insects, and eggs."

An Escape or Release

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Tegu lizards are established in Georgia and Florida.  Dustin Smith

In Florida, invasive tegus have burrowed into the nests of turtles and alligators and eaten the eggs. The growing tegu population is threatening native Sunshine State wildlife including crocodiles, sea turtles, ground-nesting birds, and small mammals, reports the Everglades Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area.

Tegus mature and reproduce quickly and have few predators.

"Due to the potential negative impacts on our native wildlife, it is very important that any wild or free ranging tegu be removed from the wild," Grosse says.

Because tegus are popular pets, it's likely that this was the result of an accidental escape or is a pet lizard that someone released into the wild, Grosse says.

Although tegus have claw, sharp teeth, and strong jaws, they are not typically aggressive.

"Tegus are not considered a threat to people and pets, however, like any wildlife, if threatened they will defend themselves and can move very quickly," Grosse says.

SCDNR had received reports since May about possible sightings of the lizard, but this was the first time it has been confirmed. The agency is investigating additional reports and Grosse is encouraging residents to email him (grossea@dnr.sc.gov) photos and report where any other tegus might have been spotted.