These Giant Invasive Lizards Are Eating Their Way Through Georgia

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A close-up of an Argentine black-and-white tegu/
The Argentine tegu probably got its start in the southern U.S, as an exotic pet. Creative Stock Studio/Shutterstock

Beware the tegu. With a name that sounds like it could be Godzilla's enemy of the week, this ravenous reptile is on a rampage in the American South. Georgia, in particular, is feeling the impact of the tegu, thanks to its undiscriminating and relentless appetite.

In fact, Georgia's Department of Natural Resources issued a plea this month asking anyone who spots a tegu to report it immediately.

"It has become established as an exotic invasive species in several sites in south Florida, and we now believe in the Toombs and Tattnall counties of Georgia," explains John Jensen of Georgia DNR, in the video above. "We're trying to remove them from the wild because they can have negative impacts on our native species."

Specifically, they're Argentine black and white tegus, but despite the name, they're native to many parts of South America,including Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

Besides being hardy and possibly even more cold tolerant than other reptiles, what makes tegus especially dangerous is their gift for multiplying. On average, females lay carrying clutches of about 30 eggs.

And all of those eggs stand a good chance of growing up to become habitat-mulching machines.

"They eat just about anything they want — plant and animal matter," Jensen explains. "One of their favorite foods are eggs from ground-nesting animals such as gopher tortoises."

That's particularly bad news since gopher tortoises — the only land tortoise native to the Southeast — is considered a keystone species. In other words, the species carries the weight of an entire ecosystem on its slender shoulders. Removing the gopher tortoise from Georgia's long-leaf pine forests could spell the collapse of the entire ecosystem.

To add insult to injury, tegus routinely kick gopher turtles out of their burrows and make them their own.

Concern is running so high, wildlife officials are even encouraging people to take more drastic measures when spotting them. "If you're able to safely and humanely dispatch the animal, we encourage that and we want that information too," Jensen says.

Other conservation groups put it more bluntly. "Tegus seen in Georgia can and should be shot on sight," the Orianne Society notes in a Facebook post.

When they're not feasting on the eggs of Georgia's official state reptile, tegus enjoy everything from quail and chicken eggs to fruit, vegetables, plants, and even pet food. They won't say no to the occasional grasshopper or baby gopher tortoise either.

Fortunately, they draw the line at humans. It's not like you're going to be surprised by one of these mini-monsters in the forest anyway. At about 4 feet long and speckled with tell-tale black-and-white spots or bands, don't exactly blend in with the foliage.

Jensen notes that they're often mistaken for young alligators that have wandered far from their watery homes.

Besides, tegus probably have humans to thank for introducing them to this Southern smorgasbord. The tegu invasion is being blamed entirely on exotic pet owners who release them into the wild once they grow too big to handle.

"When these lizards get too large, people just release them," Chris Jenkins of the Orianne Society tells Garden & Gun magazine.

The good news is the tegu invasion is still in its infancy — at least in Georgia — meaning there's a chance to turn back these hungry marauders. "If we are aggressive with control efforts, we can still hope to eradicate them fully," Georgia DNR biologist Daniel Sollenberger tells Garden & Gun.

But the real solution to the tegu menace begins at home.

"There are reptile adoption groups that may take it and try to find it a home," Jensen says in the video. "Releasing it into the wild is the absolute worst thing to do."