The Argentine Black and White Tegu is the largest species of tegu lizards. Here’s why these big lizards have been getting the spotlight.
1. They are omnivores with a liking for fruits.
2. They use their tongue to “smell.”
3. They like burrowing themselves in dirt and soaking in water.
4. Argentine black and white tegus may be big, but they are known for being more docile than the smaller tegus.
5. They can be walked when trained. Put a leash on them, and walk them. Similar to how you would walk a dog!
It goes without saying that Argentine black and white tegus are, well, black and white. Their skin has a pattern of lines and dots of these colors. When they are young, they have a shade of green, which fades as early as when they are one month old.
Also called the “giant tegu”, Argentine black and white tegus can be as long as 4.5 feet and can weigh up to 20 kilograms! They have claws, powerful jaws, and a strong tail.
Tegus in the Philippines
As their name suggests, Argentine black and white tegus are native in some countries in Latin America, namely Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
Despite not being native in the Philippines, there are tegus living in the country. We talked with Lendl Lin, Edwin Pereulo, and Lester de Jesus, the guardians of some of these tegus to learn about the giant lizards, and how they care for them in the Philippine setting.
Tegus of Manila
“I would often associate them with cats,” said Lendl Lin, guardian of a black-and-white tegu named Blue. “They tolerate being around people but sometimes would be moody. They are also affectionate when they are hungry; they would often come near me and look at me as if they were hungry kittens or pups.”
Edwin Pereulo, the human of another tegu named Beauty, agrees: “Tame siya. . . Madaling buhatin at napapa-relax ko siya. [She is docile. . . She’s easy to carry and I can make her relax.]”
Lester de Jesus, guardian of tegus cheekily named Randy and Raymart Santegus, has this to say about them: “I named my tegus Randy and Raymart Santegus to rhyme with [the name of a] local artist. They like cuddles.”
A note on getting a tegu
Argentine black and white tegus are difficult to breed because of their size. To supply tegus to the pet trade, some tegus are caught from the wild. Removing tegus from their home disrupts the natural ecological balance – tegus are really important in their ecosystem!
So, hold up! If you buy a tegu from a breeder, there can be serious environmental repercussions.
Care for tegus
Lizards can be difficult to care for, especially giant ones. If any species would change our minds about this, it’s the Argentine black and white tegu. Once you’ve made them their giant enclosure, taking care of these giant lizards comes relatively easy.
First, they’re not difficult to feed. Argentine black and white tegus are not only omnivores, they are opportunistic omnivores – they eat almost anything that they find. They eat vegetation, insects, and even carrion.
As they will eat almost anything, be conscious of what you feed them. Their optimal diet is a healthy mix of plants, insects, and animal meat.
As they grow older, they eat more vegetation. Try giving your Argentine black and white tegu grapes for treats – the four tegus of Manila we mention here all like grapes!
Regularly give your tegu calcium supplements to avoid metabolic bone disease.
As Lendl says, tegus can be like cats! You can pet them in places they approve of, and some even allow being carried. But be mindful of their tail! Tegus can drop their tail when they are threatened or when their tail is hurt.
Your tegu’s tail has already dropped? Don’t worry, it can grow back!
They might also be wary of new places, like cats can be. If you’re taking them outside for the first time, secure them properly and comfortably so they can’t make an escape.
The right home
Giant lizards need giant enclosures. For Argentine black and white tegus, it’s more important for an enclosure to be long than it is to be high.
Tegus do not usually stand on their hind legs nor climb high. A minimum size of 6x3x2 feet is recommended for the enclosure. As this species of tegu can be as long as 4.5 feet, make their enclosures as long and wide as you can.
Argentine black and white tegus also need UVB, which they use to make Vitamin D. UVB can be from natural sunlight or artificial light with UVB. It doesn’t penetrate glass, so use a material like wire mesh to cover the part of the enclosure where UVB light passes.
Include hiding spots in your tegu’s enclosure. They’re not always in the mood to bask and say hi!
Lendl on her tegu’s enclosure: “Mine used to be a wooden customized enclosure with small vents on the side and at the back. Inside, I have two lighting fixtures: one is a ReptiSun fluorescent bulb and the other is a bulb for basking. The enclosure size is 6×3.5×3.5 feet.”
If you have more space to spare, you can also do it as Lester did. “I dedicated my whole attic to my tegus – [that’s] about 45 square meters.”
Substrate for burrowing and water for soaking are also common features of an Argentine black and white enclosure. Lendl uses four inches of substrate, because Blue loves to dig and burrow herself especially when she is starting to shed. Lester, on the other hand, provides a water dish for soaking.
Care for tegus in the Philippines
The Philippine climate is close to that of tegus’ native countries, providing the right environment for tegus here is relatively easy.
“It is easy because they are calm, [and there are] no humidity requirements because our climate is almost identical to where they are normally found,” says Lester.
“Since the temperature in the Philippines is warmer, I find it easier for them to acclimate. Still, I provide them with proper lighting indoors, such as ReptiSuns and basking bulbs,” Lendl shares.
Edwin shares the same sentiment. “For me, [it’s] easy [to] raise a tegu. Nabigay ko naman ang needs niya kaya three years ko na siyang pet. [I was able to provide for her needs, which is why she has been my pet for three years now.]”
Tegu as a housemate
We asked the guardians of the Tegus of Manila what the best part was about having an Argentine black and white tegu.
Lendl: “The best part of being a guardian to a black and white tegu is the connection. . . Sometimes, you come home and look at them and see them acknowledging your presence.”
Lester: “Once na kilala ka na talaga niya, ikaw na ang [human] niya. Sa experience ko kay Beauty, lalo na nung dinala ko siya sa vet, na-stress siya sa paghawak ng mga nurse. Pero nung ako na ang humawak, hindi na siya pumalag. [Once they really get to know you, they acknowledge you as their human. In my experience with Beauty, especially when I brought her to the vet, she got stressed out by how the nurses handled her. But when it was I who held her, she no longer fought back.]”
Edwin: “They like cuddles and recognize you when you enter their enclosure.”
Tegus from the pet trade
Having an Argentine black and white tegu can have serious environmental consequences, even if the tegu came from a reputable breeder. One reason: invasion.
The ecological balance in Southern US is being threatened by Argentine black and white tegus who aren’t native in the area. Tegus can lay 30 eggs in a year; with no natural predator in the foreign land, they threaten to become invasive species in Florida, and possibly other states in the Southern US.
The invasive tegus can significantly reduce the population of birds, reptiles, small mammals, and ecologically important insects. They further threaten the population of gopher tortoises who are a protected species. Lastly, they displace other native species.
But tegus aren’t to blame for this. The tegus now threatening the ecosystem of Southern US is mostly because of the pet trade. According to a study published in Nature in 2018, as many as 79,000 live tegus have been imported into the US in 2000 to 2015 alone. Florida is a hub for the exotic pet trade. The tegus invading Florida now are mostly released by humans who once thought of having them as pets but changed their minds, while some have escaped from inadequate enclosures.
As Clint Laidlaw, Biologist and University instructor, said, tegus are “out of this world amazing.” They are amazing – being their tegu selves in their own habitat, helping our world one meal and poop at a time.