KEY LARGO -- A Monroe County exotic species control agent successfully captured a tegu lizard here last week.
The lizard was the first tegu to be reported in the Upper Keys, according to the exotic species mapping website EDD. But it wasn't a homebred tegu from the Everglades. Rather, it was an escaped pet.
"This guy, he was a couch potato," said Jim Duquesnel, who was able to catch the lizard by hand, without the aid of a trap. "I would have never caught a healthy tegu the way I caught him."
Some 450 tegus have been reported in recent years in the Homestead and Everglades areas, where they have taken hold and begun to breed. The black and white Argentine import typically grows to around 3 feet and reaches a weight of 8 pounds. They are foragers that thrive on eggs that are laid on the ground.
So far, though, the Jewfish Creek crossing has proved a tough barrier for tegus on the southern edge of the Everglades, said Duquesnel, a biologist who has also worked as an exotic species control agent with the U.S. Geological Survey.
But if tegus ever do begin breeding in the Upper Keys, it could mean problems for a range of native egg-laying species, including box turtles, burrowing owls, nighthawks, least terns and even the American crocodile.
Duquesnel said escaped tegu pets can be far from harmless. The reptile he captured last week appears to be male, he said. But if an escaped lizard is a female and has already mated, it can be capable of laying eggs for a lengthy period of time. In addition, breeding populations sometimes get started when escaped pets encounter one another.
"When one of yours gets away and one of his gets away, and they happen to meet, you've got a problem," Duquesnel said.
Authorities in Key Largo were first alerted to the escaped tegu on Friday, Oct. 11, when David Norman, a marine mechanic for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, called in a sighting at his mile marker 99, oceanside, house, FWC spokeswoman Carli Segelson wrote in an email.
Duquesnel was called to the scene and set several traps in the area. Authorities later learned that the lizard had escaped from its owner's nearby house.
Then last Tuesday, Oct. 15, Duquesnel responded to a report of the tegu on Fisherman's Trail, not far from the Norman household. Duquesnel showed up at the scene with trapping equipment, but the lizard was so lethargic that he was able to capture it by hand.
It is legal to keep tegu lizards as pets in Florida. But releasing one, or any other nonnative species, intentionally is a second-degree misdemeanor.
Segelson said the FWC has investigated this case and decided not to file charges.
"[T]he tegu accidentally escaped and every effort was made by the owner to recapture the tegu," she wrote.