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Thermal stability of an adaptable, invasive ectotherm: Argentine giant tegus in the Greater Everglades ecosystem, USA

September 8, 2021

Invasive species globally threaten biodiversity and economies, but the ecophysiological mechanisms underlying their success are often understudied. For those alien species that also exhibit high phenotypic plasticity, such as habitat generalists, adaptations in response to environmental pressures can take place relatively quickly. The Argentine giant tegu (Salvator merianae; tegu) is a large omnivorous lizard from South America that is prolific, long-lived, vagile, and highly adaptable to disturbed environments. They are well suited to the climate of southeastern United States, introduced to several disjunct areas, including the Everglades, where their voracious appetite threatens native wildlife. Tegus undergo winter dormancy (hibernation) to cope with colder temperatures, and while this behavior may facilitate invasion into more temperate regions, it may also present management opportunities. We studied the thermal habits of wild S. merianae within their invaded range in southern Florida, USA. We used radiotelemetry and trail cameras to verify aboveground behaviors, and temperature dataloggers to monitor surface (sun-exposed [Te] and shaded [Ts]), ambient (Ta), subsurface ground (Th), and internal body (Tb) temperatures of a population of free-ranging tegus over several seasons. We evaluated thermal and behavioral data and identified five biologically significant periods: pre-hibernal, hibernal, cold snaps, hibernal-basking, and post-hibernal. We found tegus maintained thermal stability throughout the hibernal period, frequently at temperatures above available thermal microhabitats. Variation in Tb was lowest during hibernation and cold snaps and was less variable than subsurface temperatures despite not leaving their hibernaculum. Hibernal ingress and egress were best predicted by temperature differentials between exposed soil and ambient daily mean temperatures (Te − Ta) and daylength. Though we detected no sex differences, larger animals started hibernation sooner, stayed in hibernation longer, and retained higher fat stores over the study period. One individual did not hibernate, representing only the second record of this behavior. Despite limitations of these descriptive data, this is the first study finely detailing Tb of a population of wild, free-ranging S. merianae over multiple biologically significant time periods and to associate Tb with thermal habitats within its invasive range. Tegus' apparent ability for thermal stability expands the adaptability breadth of this species and underscores the invasion threat.