UF/IFAS scientists on the lookout for Argentine tegus, Nile monitors, seeking assistance from south Florida residents
DAVIE, Fla. – Nile monitors and Argentine giant tegus are predatory lizards that are an immediate threat to the Greater Everglades ecosystems. UF/IFAS scientists are looking to engage residents in south Florida currently in extended stay-at-home orders to put their quarantine time to good use for research, environmental conservation, and public safety.
As we approach Invasive Species Week, May 16-23, UF/IFAS scientists at Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center have launched a social media campaign to engage residents in reporting sightings of Nile monitors and Argentine tegus. The “Backyard Canal Watch/Large Lizard Lookout” has hit the ground running and looks to Palm Beach County residents as a first step to capture data. UF/IFAS Croc Docs at the research center will follow up to enhance the campaign south to include Broward and Miami Dade counties.
“We seek to mobilize the public as citizen scientists to report Nile monitors, Argentine tegus, and other large invasive lizards at a time when in-person outreach is neither safe nor feasible,” said Justin Dalaba, outreach coordinator for UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center.
The main message for this social media campaign is to encourage residents in private residences and communities to be a part of the “Backyard Canal Watch / Large Lizard Lookout” and report large lizard sightings to https://IveGot1.org or by calling 1-888-IVEGOT1. Not sure if you have spotted an invasive lizard? Log on to the following website (https://www.floridainvasives.org/lizard/) and check out the tool to help you identify.
“As you look to expand your activities during this time of social distancing, look no further than your backyard. Be a backyard biologist and help the University of Florida’s Croc Docs by reporting these invasive large lizards,” said Dalaba. “You can help protect Florida’s biodiversity and natural areas from your own backyard.”
Nile monitors and Argentine tegus are invasive species popular in the pet trade industry, which is how biologists think they ended up in the wild in south Florida.
The Nile monitor, a native to sub-Saharan Africa breeding in Palm Beach and Lee counties, can lay an average of 60 eggs a clutch several times a year. These semi-aquatic lizards are strong swimmers and climbers, found near canals, lakes, and rivers. Nile monitors are generalist carnivores, primarily feeding on meat including fish, invertebrates, reptiles and their eggs, birds and their eggs, and small mammals.
“To our knowledge, the established population of Nile monitors in the C-51 Basin is largely localized to a suburban environment,” said Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife ecology at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center. “Outreach efforts in 2019 led to several unexpected reports of Argentine black and white tegus from Palm Beach County, elevating the need for a wider public observational network to report large invasive lizards.”
The Argentine black and white tegu, native to Argentina and Brazil found throughout Florida and as far north as George, are breeding in Miami Dade and Hillsborough counties and spreading across South Florida. They can lay an average of 35 eggs in a clutch multiple times a year. These ground-dwelling lizards that can traverse land and water, frequently live near water and dig burrows. They are omnivorous, foraging on plants and animals including eggs, fruits, insects, and other reptiles.
Mazzotti, who is affiliated with the group known as the UF “Croc Docs,” notes that Nile monitors are opportunistic hunters that are known to eat crocodile eggs and have been found near American crocodile nesting habitats in south Florida, noted Mazzotti. The largest population of Nile monitors in Florida is also home to the largest burrowing owl population, which the state classifies as a threatened species. Meanwhile, he adds, tegus have been documented as feeding on alligator and turtle eggs, gopher tortoise hatchlings, and disturbing protected crocodile nests.