Wildlife officials say people buy them as pets, then release them in preserves.

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TAMPA BAY, Fla. — The Tampa Bay area seems to be a fertile breeding ground for an exotic lizard that wildlife officials want to keep from becoming the state's next invasive species problem.

More than 100 black-and-white tegu lizards have been spotted in Hillsborough County, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The area is now considered home to one of three tegu breeding populations in the state.

Wildlife officials have spotted more than 100 of them between Riverview and Gibsonton. The animals, which are native to Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina, do not belong in the habitat in southwest Florida, and FWC is concerned about animals that call the area home losing their habitat because of the invasive lizards.

"People buy these cute little lizards at the pet store and then they grow to be too big for an aquarium and they are too expensive to feed and then they just set them free in the preserves," said FWC biologist, Tessie Offner.

Offner has spent the last three years catching tegus, which can grow to four feet long. They have no known predators according to the FWC.

"They produce rapidly, laying between 25-50 eggs at a time," said Offner. "They eat everything from plants to other animals with bones and shells- also amphibians, and birds."

She said their stomachs contains an acidic liquid that can dissolve animal bones and shells, like the gopher tortoise's, within days and it comes out like they never ate anything solid.

"We had a whole gopher turtle preserve on our 1,100 acres and now they are all gone," said volunteer horse rescue worker, Marvel Stewart. "We see four to five a week on our property."

Stewart lives in Lithia along with other homeowners who have been reported sightings of the lizards.

"One got into our horse shed, and thankfully the horse was not in there at the time, but if it had been it would have been bad because the horse would have bucked, and possibly hurt herself trying to run from the lizard," said Stewart.

The FWC has set 28 traps in the parkland and dozens more on private property to help catch them.

They lure the lizards in with a raw chicken egg and then trap them and humanely euthanize them.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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