PUNTA GORDA — The Punta Gorda-based DeHart farm has more than 100 free-range birds running around their property.
There are dozens of chickens, around 15 goats, some ducks, and two turkeys. The chickens typically lay 27 dozen eggs weekly.
“It’s like an Easter egg hunt on our property every day,” Keri DeHart said.
But, eight years ago, DeHart realized her egg count had severely dropped to roughly two dozen eggs, if she was lucky.
“I had no idea what I was dealing with,” DeHart said. Finally, she spotted an estimated 5-foot-long tegu on her front porch.
The Argentine black and white tegu is a nonnative lizard originally from South America. They have no natural predators, are a threat to the already endangered gopher tortoise and eat many chicken eggs.
“They broke the eggs in a distinct way,” DeHart said.
That’s how she knew when a tegu had infiltrated her chicken coop. Tegus break a small hole in the egg, and then use their long tongues to scrape out the insides “completely clean.”
The lizards also hurt her hens while they were protecting their eggs.
DeHart said she has lost thousands of dollars in revenue due to tegus, among other loses.
And tegus are spreading.
Tegus have established populations in Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties, according to Daniel Quinn, a biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s nonnative program.
So, when FWC began receiving reports of sightings in Charlotte County, Quinn called the emerging population “a big deal.”
“Tegus are not native to Florida and have been known to consume native species,” Quinn said. “There is scientific evidence to suggest that tegus could spread to other parts of Florida and even other parts of the southeastern United States.”
The Charlotte County population was most likely started due to a voluntary or accidental release of a pet tegu, Quinn said.
“(Tegus) got introduced as a part of the pet trade,” Jason Thompson, a senior environmental specialist with Charlotte County, told the Sun last year. “A lot of people acquired exotic reptiles because they seemed like really cool pets. (People) didn’t realize that this lizard that is 12-inches, 14-, 16-inches long when you get it, later becomes a 3- or 4-foot long, very nasty-tempered animal that will bite and can ... cause some damage.”
Female tegus can lay about 35 eggs a year, which hatch in the summer. Live tegus in the county have mainly been spotted near Washington Loop Road and Bermont Road in Punta Gorda, according to Tyson Dallas, a biologist for FWC’s non-native program.
Dead tegus have even been found on the highways of Punta Gorda.
Since DeHart’s family started trapping tegus, they have caught about 10, she said.
FWC started their tegu trapping program last June and has since caught roughly 60 tegus in Charlotte County. The organization currently has 20 to 40 traps throughout Charlotte County to catch these animals. Once caught, the tegus are euthanized, Quinn said.
DeHart even claimed that a tegu killed her cat, Thumper, 2, but this has not been confirmed by FWC.
To protect pets, keep eyes on your animals. Quinn also suggests not leaving pet food out for animals, as the omnivores will be drawn to this. The animals will also be looking for shelter, so be sure to cover up sheds, or other places the lizards can hide.
“Tegus are not dangerous,” Quinn said, with tegus typically being nonaggressive in nature, “but it will defend itself.” With sharp teeth.
If residents see a tegu, the FWC advises to take a picture, note the location and report the sighting to the exotic species hotline at 1-888-IVE-GOT1 or online at IveGot1.org. Do not attempt to remove these animals without professional guidance. The FWC may be able to provide assistance with removal or provide a list of trappers.