Five things to know: Nearly 70 species of lizards have invaded Florida, the Everglades

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Florida is home to some pretty fantastic animals. 

From fish-eating spiders to alligators, crocodiles, panthers, black bear and all sizes and sorts of sharks, the Sunshine State has a lot to offer when it comes to physically capable hunters and the intimidation they can breed. 

The Burmese python has wreaked havoc on animals in the historic Everglades, eating many native animals and competing with others for breeding and feeding space. 

Lizards are here, too. From the mentally menacing to the exotic and even blasé, most of these animals don't belong here; but they've become a permanent part of Florida's landscape.

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At least 67 foreign species that call Florida home

From the mop-headed iguana to the Chinese water dragon, there are at least 67 foreign species that call Florida home. They range from the docile and domesticated to outright predatory killers. 

"We have no reports of an invasive lizard species seriously harming a person," Segelson said. "However, any animal will defend itself." 

The invasion started in 1928 with the horned lizard, according to state wildlife records. 

Many were introduced to the wild's of Florida through the pet trade. Owners have released enough lizards in some areas to form breeding populations that will likely be a permanent part of Florida's landscape. 

Here's a look at five species that have invaded the state: the Argentine tegu, Nile monitor, iguanas, the African agama, and brown basilisks. 

Argentine tegus

Coming in at nearly 5 feet when mature, Argentine black and white tegus are quite beefy for lizards, and they're efficient predators. 

First documented in Florida in 2002, these massive lizards can be found in Southwest Florida and in Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties, according to FWC. 

"They are efficient egg predators that will consume the eggs of ground-nesting birds and reptiles," Segelson said in an email. "They may also impact other ground-nesting native wildlife such as the gopher tortoise, American crocodile, sea turtles and ground-nesting birds." 

An Argentine black and white tegu feeds on a banana while in captivity. These large lizards are popular pets and have become established breeders in parts of Florida, competing with and even preying on native species.

Tegus can thrive in tropical rain forests and even deserts and are native to Central and South America. 

They're popular as pets, and some owners say they are as affectionate and attentive as many of our furry domesticated companions. 

Nile monitors

Found throughout sub-Saharan Africa and along the Nile River, these beastly lizards are adept climbers and can stay underwater for up to 15 minutes, according to FWC. 

They've been established in Florida since at least 1981. 

"The largest invasive lizard species established in Florida is likely the Nile monitor lizard," said Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC. "They are the largest lizard species in Africa and can attain lengths of about 6-and-a-half feet and weigh up to (nearly 18) pounds, although a typical adult averages 5 feet in length and weighs close to 15 pounds." 

FWC says these lizards are established in Lee County on the Southwest coast and in Palm Beach, between Lake Okeechobee and the Atlantic Ocean. 

A Nile monitor slithers through short grasses. These lizards can grow to 5 feet and compete with and eat native Florida species.


Native to Central and South America, iguanas are vegetarians but they can look awful scary when they're swimming up a creek or sprinting across your lawn. 

With large, whipping tails and colors that range from charcoal to exotic yellows and nearly-neon greens, iguanas have plagued much of the developed areas of South Florida. 

An iguana swims across a canal off of Summerlin Road near Pine Ridge Road after being spooked recently.

They can be found in river systems and lakes, pretty much anywhere there's water and trees or seawalls to climb. 

Reports of iguanas seem to be on the rise in the Lee County area, anecdotally, as they've been noticed recently at retention ponds in the Fort Myers area, golf courses in Cape Coral and even on the relatively undisturbed Estero River. 

Peter's rock agamas

An African agama lizard sits in the sun on the trunk of a tree in South Fort Myers near Pine Ridge Road and San Carlos Boulevard recently. The lizards are not native to Southwest Florida.

Now found throughout the historic Everglades, Peter's rock agamas are one of the more visually striking invasive critters in Florida. 

They're easy to see but hard to catch, biologists say, and they're likely a Florida fixture after first being documented in 1976. 

Experts think the Peter's rock agama was introduced through the pet trade decades ago, as was documented in 1983 study on invasive lizards in South Florida. 

Brown basilisks

A brown basilisk lizard rests on a tree limb. This species is known as the "Jesus lizard" for its ability to walk across still waters.

Known widely as "the Jesus lizard," The brown basilisk's home range is from tropical Mexico through Central America to northern South America. 

They get the "Jesus" name from their ability to walk across water. 

According to biologists, basilisks eat insects likes grasshoppers and spiders, worms and the occasional eat fallen fruit. 

First documented in Florida in the 1970s, basilisks were problematic in the Cape Coral area several years ago. 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.