Imagine this. You’re out walking around somewhere in the South Carolina woods and you see a lizard the size of a dog.
Uh-huh, nope, you might mutter as you back away from the out-sized creature with a distinctive black and white pattern as if someone used batik to dress it up.
Chances are, it once was somebody’s pet. The Argentine Black and White Tegu, once a darling of the pet trade, is now banned in South Carolina as it is in Georgia and Florida, where it was first seen in the wild in the United States a decade ago.
It has been spreading north ever since. Tegus have been spotted across South Carolina, specifically in Greenville, Pickens, Darlington, Orangeburg, Berkeley, Richland and Lexington counties, DNR reported on its website — more than half from the Columbia area.
Like many non-native species threatening native wildlife, these tegus are out roaming around because an owner let them go. Will Dillman of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources said the interest in tegus stemmed from their submissive nature and intelligence. They won’t hurt you but they are predators.
They eat both plants and animals. The list of what they will eat is long: eggs of ground-nesting birds such as quail and turkeys; alligators and gopher tortoises, chicken eggs, fruit, vegetables, plants, pet food, carrion and small live animals, from grasshoppers to young gopher tortoises.
In the wild they’ve been known to steal burrows of gopher tortoises, an endangered species in South Carolina. Black and White Tegu are native to Paraguay, eastern Uruguay and northern Argentina.
The South Carolina General Assembly enacted a law in 2021 that required anyone with a pet tegu to register it and implant a microchip. Since September 2021, the animal can no longer be bought, sold or transferred to someone else or brought into the state.
When the law was passed people had reported seeing about a dozen. DNR hoped to get a handle on the infestation before it got worse. Some think it’s a lost cause. Tegus are better able to withstand cold than most lizards. They have the ability to raise their body temperature 50 degrees above the current temperature.
Also of concern, is the possibility of tegus spreading exotic parasites to native wildlife and contaminate crops. South Carolina naturalist Rudy Mancke, who died Tuesday, described in his understated folksy way when the law was passed in 2021 how to catch one.
“You can take an old sheet and just throw it out in the air holding the ends, and let it just settle down on it, and that animal will just stay there until people come. It’s hidden, figures nobody sees it. It’s a great way to catch an animal. I’ve had good success with that.
That’s a safe way of doing it.” Don’t just pick it up, he said. Their bite is not venomous but it is powerful. DNR has online forms to report all non-native species.
For animals, it’s https://non-native-species-scdnr.hub.arcgis.com/pages/non-native-animal.
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This article by Lyn Riddle was first published by The State on 10 November 2023. Lead Image: The Argentine Black and White Tegu, once a darling of the pet trade, is now banned in South Carolina. SC DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES/PROVIDED.