Tegu lizards are large, thick-bodied lizards known for their hardiness and docile nature. Found natively in South America, they now can be found living as an invasive species in parts of Florida, or as pets in many homes.
Keep reading to learn more about tegu lizards, where they live, what they eat, and how to care for a pet tegu.
What Is a Tegu Lizard?
Tegus are fairly large South American lizards that are often kept as exotic pets. When cared for and socialized properly, they are often very calm and live well in captivity.
There are three main species of tegu:
- Argentine black and white tegu (Salvator merianae)
- Red Tegu (Salvator rufescens)
- Gold Tegu (Tupinambis teguxin)
All three tegu species have thick heads, necks, bodies, and tails. Their scales are patterned similarly with dark striped bands and light spots in varying colors.
Red tegus are the largest, growing up to 4.5 feet long. Argentine black and white tegus are the secondl argest, at 4 feet long from their heads to their tails. The smallest is the gold tegu, averaging around 2-3 feet long when fully mature.
What Do Tegu Lizards Eat?
Tegus are opportunistic predators that enjoy eating a wide variety of live prey, scavenged carrion, eggs, and plants.
Young tegus begin life primarily as carnivores, mostly eating crickets, worms, roaches, and other insects. If kept as a pet, young tegus can also eat small newborn (pinky) mice. Any mice fed to a tegu should be no larger than the distance between the tegus eyes.
As tegus get older, their diet becomes much more diverse. Older tegus will continue to eat insects, along with fruits, vegetables, smaller lizards, mice, and other rodents. Eggs are a tegu favorite, and tegus have been known to eat entire clutches of sea turtle, tortoise, and alligator eggs in the wild. Older pet tegus can be given whole eggs in the shell, cat food, dog food, melons, berries, ground meats, and more.
Young pet tegus will need to eat daily, but older tegus can be fed every other day during their active periods.
You should never give your tegu food during periods of deep rest called brumation, similar to hibernation. Tegus will brumate for between 4-6 months each year. During brumation your tegu’s care and diet needs will change. When your tegu is brumating, its metabolism will be too slow to digest food. Undigested food will rot in its stomach and can potentially kill your tegu.
Where Do Tegu Lizards Live?
Tegu lizards are native to several South American countries including Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Escaped or abandoned pet tegus have been living and breeding in parts of Florida.
While tegus thrive in warm climates, they may be able to survive in slightly colder climates as well. Tegus spend winter months buried underground in a dormant state, brumating. During this time, the tegus will be in a deep rest similar to hibernation. Their metabolism will slow down substantially, as well.
Some tegu studies showed that tegus can live through colder temperatures by adapting their body temperatures and brumating for longer periods. With the ability to survive mild winters, tegus may spread to other southern states without efforts to capture and contain them.
Are Tegu Lizards Dangerous?
Tegu lizards are typically calm and easily managed as pets. Adult tegus can be difficult to handle because of their large size and powerful jaws. Some tegus can also become aggressive during breeding seasons, or if they feel territorial over their cage space. Bites from a tegu can cause serious injuries if you don’t take proper precautions.
While tegus are not typically dangerous to humans, as an invasive, non-native species, tegus pose a serious threat to native wildlife. Their habit of raiding bird and reptile nests for eggs puts a strain on already threatened or endangered local species.
Are Tegu Lizards Good Pets?
Keeping pet reptiles isn't for everybody, but tegus can be good pets for intermediate or experienced reptile handlers. Tegus that are well cared for and socialized are quite intelligent and, usually, non-aggressive. They can recognize their owners and learn various reactions or responses when stimulated.
Their large size and powerful bodies make them more difficult to handle than smaller lizards. Tegu bites can cause serious injury. Tegus also need a large enclosure and spend several months of the year buried in substrate to brumate, which might make them less appealing pets to some reptile keepers.
Caring for Tegu Lizards
Tegu lizards are relatively hardy pets that do well when fed and housed properly. When caring for a tegu lizard, it's important to think about its housing, feeding, watering, and handling needs.
An adult tegu will need an enclosure that is a minimum size of 8 feet long, 4 feet deep, and 3 feet tall. They will need heat lights and space to bask. Lights should be on at least 8 hours a day, and the enclosure should be kept between 72 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Heated basking stones should be set between 100-110 degrees. Brumating tegus need cooler enclosures. Keep the enclosure between 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit while your tegu brumates.
They also need at least 10 inches of substrate to burrow into. You can use soil, coconut husks, or leaf litter. Cypress mulch is also safe for Tegus, but avoid treated woods, pine, and cedar.
Humidity is another important part of the tegus habitat. It should be kept fairly high, between 60-80%. Using moist substrate, installing a mister, and measuring the enclosure’s humidity levels with a hydrostat can help you maintain a healthy environment for your tegu.
Tegus are omnivores who eat fruits, vegetables, eggs, insects, meats, and live prey. They should be fed a diverse diet regularly and given nutritional supplements as necessary to maintain their health.
Tegus will need a large watering bowl or a pan that is big enough to soak their bodies. The water can easily become dirty and must be changed frequently to keep it fresh. Make sure to regularly disinfect the water pan or bowl. Keeping clean will prevent harmful bacteria like salmonella from growing and help you and your tegu stay healthy.
Tegus are generally very calm and easy to handle, but you should always use patience and care when holding a tegu. Watch your tegu for signs of stress, fear, or aggression to avoid possible injury. Don’t handle your tegu while it’s brumating, but be sure to check on it every 4-6 weeks during that time to make sure it looks healthy.