One such creature is the Texas Horned Lizard. Most of us grew up calling them “horny toads,” but they are not toads at all. They are indeed lizards, although flat and spiny ones.
After many years of scarcity, people in South Texas are again getting to see horned lizards. Have you seen one in your yard yet?
Horned lizards seem to be making a slow comeback. Perhaps this is because the Texas Horned Lizard was put on the Threatened Species list in Texas after a serious decline in its population in the 1960s. This status protects the lizard from exploitation. More specifically, it prohibits the possession, sale, transport or handling of this species without a permit.
This protection has helped the horned lizard recover. Preserving suitable habitat and the species’ food supply has been important, too.
The current drought conditions actually favor Texas Horned Lizards. There is a lot of bare ground with only scattered low vegetation. This is just what the lizard likes: plenty of sun and some bunch grass for cover.
And there are a lot of red harvester ants. Over 70 percent of the horned lizard’s diet is these large red ants.
In fact, the loss of these ants may have contributed to the decline in the lizards in the first place. In the 1970s, the imported red fire ant (a South American species) was accidentally introduced to the United States. This non-native ant out-competed many of our native species, including the harvester ant. And worse, efforts to eradicate the invasive fire ant involved the use of serious pesticides, like Mirex, which devastated all ant populations.
The poor horned lizards had little food. Their habitat was diminished. The species was destined to a crash.
But, if you grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, you probably didn’t know that. Horned lizards were plentiful.
My friends tell me that, as kids, they had four or five “horny toads” with them at all times, usually in their pockets. Horned lizards were fairly easy to catch and were docile when caught. They never bit. You could place one on its back in your hand and stroke its belly until it went to sleep. Of course, one occasionally would squirt blood from its eyes, but that was exciting to us kids.
Horned lizards made great pets, although usually temporary ones. You didn’t need to feed it or keep it in a special terrarium. You just let it go near an ant hill at the end of the day, and caught another one the next morning.
But something happened to the horned lizards. By the 1970s, we almost never saw one. The cause for the drastic reduction in the numbers of horned lizards is complex. Some blame us kids for catching so many of them. But I think that played a very small part in their decline.
Most herpetologists (reptile specialists) believe that habitat loss was the biggest cause. We cannot completely rule out the novelty of collecting the docile yet fierce-looking lizard as a factor in its demise. Tourists to Texas and the Southwest took home horned lizards as souvenirs. Sadly, most of these died. Horned lizards need heat and plenty of it to stimulate their appetites. Even a heat lamp was not enough.
Basking in very warm sunlight allowed them to reach the high body temperature needed to digest ants. Exposure to sunlight also triggered the production of Vitamin D, which these lizards especially need to build strong bones and bony spines. Horned lizards removed from their native habitat did not do well.
To make matters worse, several other practices occurred during the ’50s and ’60s. I personally watched a “time capsule” prepared for the cornerstone of my family’s church in Austin. The capsule was to be sealed for 25 years. Into the box went a Bible, a newspaper, some coins, and a live horned lizard. I was nine years old. I cried for the lizard.
No doubt the horned lizards’ extraordinary ability to hibernate for months was the reason for the belief that they could last for decades in a sealed box. As soon as daytime temperatures fall in September and October, horned lizards dig a burrow and hibernate until late April or May.
One other practice certainly had an effect on Texas Horned Lizards. If it is true, that is. I heard that baby horned lizards, barely an inch long upon hatching, would be dipped in molten gold or silver to make jewelry. Such a pendant would be quite novel, but how could anyone wear such a thing knowing how it was produced? Let’s hope this story isn’t true.
Maybe the old pressures on the threatened lizard are finally being reduced. More people are seeing more harvester ant beds, and, occasionally, next to the ant-trails leading up to the beds, horned lizards are found. The lizards pick off unsuspecting ants as they travel the trails. It seems the lizards move around from bed to bed, so that they do not “overfish” any one colony. However, they are basically territorial and once seen in an area, they can be found again and again.
It would be nice if we could mark them as individuals in some way. Perhaps a red ribbon around the neck would do (as Muriel wore in O. Henry’s short story “Jimmy Hayes and Muriel”)? But marking them is illegal without a permit, so we must rely on good observations.
Just look at the horned lizard’s size and horn condition. A broken horn can be a good marker. Or maybe the spot pattern varies from lizard to lizard. But start watching for “horny toads” in Bee County. I think they are coming back!