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One of the two largest terrestrial lizards in the New World, the Argentine black and white tegu, Tupinambis merianae, is one of the seven currently recognized species of tegu lizards (genus Tupinambis, all South American). Its sister species, the red tegu (Tupinambis rufescens) rivals its size; both can reach a total length of 145 cm (57 inches), with large heads and jaws. The Argentine black and white tegu is an abundant species, found in a wide breadth of habitat types from ocean beaches to savannahs and disturbed areas such as forest edges, clearings, and roadsides up to elevations of 1250 m (4100 ft). It is a terrestrial animal but also a good swimmer (Embert et al. 2010; Enge 2006).
Although native to southeastern Brazil, eastern Paraguay, Uraguay, and Argentina south to Rosario (33oS latitude), Argentine black and white tegus have become an invasive pest in Florida. Established breeding populations currently in Miami-Dade, Polk and Hillsborough counties are thought to have been founded by escaped individuals from breeders and released/escaped pets. One invasion in Hillsborough county was traced back to Paraguayan origin, possibly descendants from breeder release of less healthy individuals imported under CITES between 2000-2002 when the Paraguay government allowed an annual export of about 1500 individuals (Enge 2006).
Because they are large, reproduce quickly, have large broods (average 35 eggs per nest), can tolerate cool temperatures better than other invasive reptiles, and have a broad generalist diet including fruits, vegetables, eggs, small animals and pet food, they are a significant threat to Floridian native wildlife and natural areas, perhaps the most “troublesome invasive species in the Everglades” (Nuwer 2014). The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, along with other agencies and organizations, is developing strategies for targeted trapping and removal to manage the rapidly increasing populations which threaten wild areas (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission pamphlet; Embert et al. 2010).
In 1970, Argentine tegus were introduced as a means to control rats on the island of Fernando de Noronha (a UNESCO world heritage site) located 200 miles (354 km) off the coast of Northeastern Brazil. This non-native population remains established, and while controlled, threatens seabird and turtle populations (Embert et al. 2010).
In native countries, the Argentine black and white tegu is harvested for skins, the pet trade, and as a food species (Embert et al. 2010).