Danny Haro spends most days each week hunting for a needle in a haystack – a  “needle” that can top 4 feet long, sprint nearly 20 mph and gobble up everything from grasshoppers to young gopher tortoises.

Welcome to the front lines of the effort to find and remove Argentine black and white tegus in south Georgia’s Tattnall and Toombs counties.

Here, where row crops and chicken houses butt against pine woods and creek bottoms and the August heat runs thick with humidity and gnats, these South American lizards began showing up a few years ago. The first were probably pets that escaped or were illegally released. But the world’s largest tegus soon found the sandy lands to their liking, becoming Georgia’s only known wild population of tegus.

For native wildlife, tegus are toxic. They multiply quick, grow fast and range far. Tegus eat small animals, fruits and plants. Eggs are a favorite, no matter the source: chicken, turkey, tortoise, gator, quail.

Danny Haro in the field and with a tegu. (Georgia Southern University)
Photo at top: closeup of an Argentine black and white tegu (Dustin Smith)

Which explains the chicken eggs that Haro, a student contractor with the U.S. Geological Survey, and Georgia Southern University students Jada Daniels and Michael Brennan carry as bait while checking the 90-plus live traps and 20 camera “traps” they’ve set for tegus along the Toombs/Tattnall line.

The crew has caught two tegus this year, collected one road-kill and been handed two a resident shot. Last year, nine tegus were removed from the same area. “All have been big and healthy,” Haro said.

The results, plus occasional reports from other counties, suggest the reptiles will be hard to uproot. Georgia’s totals pale in comparison to Florida, which has three tegu hotspots and where trapping along Everglades National Park can yield a few hundred tegus per season. But the response by USGS, Georgia Southern and Georgia DNR is in its early stages, explains USGS research ecologist Dr. Amy Yackel Adams.

“We don’t understand the full extent of where the tegus are,” Yackel Adams said. Georgia’s population is likely less dense and its tegus might roam farther. “This is about looking for a needle in a haystack.”

It’s also exactly what Haro signed up for a year ago when he left a lab position at Tulane University for a job where he could put conservation management principles into practice. For the 28-year-old Californian with a master’s in ecology, studying and trying to control an invasive species has been an education, from learning about trapping big lizards to assessing trap sites, working with landowners, dissecting tegus and spending the winter with the USGS catching Burmese pythons in south Florida.

Experiences in the field have driven home what’s at stake.

Haro has trapped tegus near the burrows of gopher tortoise, a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act that doesn’t need another predator to cope with. Haro has also spotted an eastern indigo snake, a federally protected species, in a patch of woods marked with tegu tracks.

The risk, he said, “couldn’t be more obvious, from seeing tracks and later seeing an animal that’s so rare, so amazing, and knowing there’s something out there that could potentially kill it. It’s very motivating.”

Haro has found locals welcoming and supportive. It helps, too, that they appreciate wildlife, he said.

“They recognize that native wildlife is part of what makes their area unique, and (they are ready) to act in ways that help preserve it.”

More public reports and trapping results will shape scientists’ understanding of tegus and efforts to eradicate them in Toombs and Tattnall. And more sightings and captures are expected as summer ends, temperatures ease and tegus become more active before winter sends them into reptilian hibernation.

The recent camera-trap photo of a large tegu on a Tattnall County farm came as no surprise.

The hunt, and the learning curve, continue.

Tegus in the Wild: What You Can Do

  • Report tegus in the wild, dead or alive. Take a photo (if possible), note the location and report the sighting at https://www.gainvasives.org/tegus/. Residents can also contact DNR at (478) 994-1438 or gainvasives@dnr.ga.gov. Sightings help document occurrences and guide the effort by DNR, the U.S. Geological Survey and Georgia Southern University to trap tegus and study the population.
  • You can also contact a wildlife trapper to remove tegus. A list of trappers by county is posted at https://georgiawildlife.com/preventing-wildlife-conflicts, as is a list of rehabilitators. Note: Tegus in the wild can be trapped or killed in a humane fashion and in accordance with local ordinances. As a non-native invasive species, tegus are not protected by Georgia wildlife laws or regulations.
  • Don’t leave pet food outside. Remove debris in your yard that tegus can use to hide or winter under.
  • Be a responsible pet owner: Learn about an animal before you get it as a pet. And www.dontletitloose.com. It’s against the law in Georgia and can harm native wildlife.
  • Learn more at https://georgiawildlife.com/tegus.