DARLINGTON COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW)– South Carolinians have been running into giant lizards where they shouldn’t be – 13 invasive tegu lizards have been found since fall, including one in Darlington County.

Andrew Grosse, a herpetologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said many of the lizards were pets that either escaped or were turned loose. He fears they could damage the ecosystem if the population is left unchecked.

“If we can remove them now before they might get established, that will make things a whole lot easier for everybody down the road, including our native species,” Grosse said.

Grosse said tegu lizards are native to South and Central America. They can grow up to four feet long.

“They get larger and they can escape,” Grosse said. “People try to do the right thing and give them more space outside and they are able to dig under or through the fence and escape.”

Grosse said South Carolina tegu owners are required to microchip their lizards starting in September. He hopes this will help prevent them from reproducing in the wild and prevent the consequences that could come with that. He said the tegu lizards do not have any natural predators.

“It can quickly out-compete some of our native species,” Grosse said.

Tegu lizards have been able to reproduce in the wild in several areas of Florida and Georgia. Grosse said wild tegus in Florida have been found with at-risk species of tortoises in their stomachs.

“We’re trying to get as much information as we can about where these things have been found in the state,” Grosse said. “If people have reports or see them, even if they’re not sure, please feel free to send an email.”

Grosse’s email is GrosseA@dnr.sc.gov. He said studying the lizards can be a big help even if they are already dead. Images of tegu lizards were provided by Dustin Smith, the reptile curator of the North Carolina Zoo.