Argentine Red Tegu

(Tupinambis rufescens)

Habitat and Distribution: Found in semi-tropical grasslands and semi-deserts in northern Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, and Bolivia.

Size: Up to 4 feet long; up to 20 pounds

Wild Diet: Insects, fruit, vegetables, rodents, birds, and fish

Predators: Humans; juveniles may fall prey to pumas, snakes, and raptors.

Lifespan: 15-20 years in zoos

Reproduction: Two-year-old females start producing eggs internally before entering their third season of hibernation. When a female emerges from hibernation, she recruits a male to fertilize the eggs. 1-2 weeks later, she builds a nest of grass and leaves (a unique behavior among lizards). Nests are 3 feet across and 2-3 feet high. Up to 73 eggs (though usually 10-30) are deposited in the nest’s bottom chamber, where they incubate for about 2 months. The female stays above the eggs in a separate chamber and guards the nest. It is speculated that the female drinks large quantities of water and regurgitates it on the nest if conditions become too dry. Hatchlings feed on insects immediately after emerging.

Behavior: Argentine red tegus are terrestrial and diurnal. They are usually found near water, as they are great swimmers and enjoy soaking. They hibernate up to 7 months in the wild, using their own burrows (2 feet deep and up to 4 feet long) or burrows abandoned by other animals. They line their burrows and plug the entrances with leaves and grass. Tegus are thought to be among the most intelligent lizards.

Conservation

IUCN Status: Not Evaluated

Argentine red tegus are among the most heavily exploited reptiles in the world, featured in trade for their skins and sometimes sold as pets. In the 1980s, nearly 2 million skins were exported from South America every year with little management or monitoring; the governments of Argentina and Paraguay now restrict the trade of young tegus. A 2006 study concluded that Argentine red tegus can withstand the current harvest pressure in Paraguay.

Did you know?

  • Tegus essentially fill the same niche that monitor lizards do on other continents – an example of convergent evolution.
  • Several species of tegu have established invasive populations in South Florida after being kept as pets and released.