Trackers help identify our horny toads


The Texas Horned Lizard We call them "horny toads" and we have a curiously strong attraction to them. So strong, in fact, that the Texas Horned Lizard is the Texas State Reptile. It lives in Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Mexico, but it's still "ours."

A total of eight species of horned lizard live in the United States. Texas is home to three - the Greater Short-horned Lizard, Round-tailed Horned Lizard, and the Texas Horned Lizard, which makes the entire state of Texas its habitat, except for the far reaches of East Texas.

Their wide, flat bodies, usually the same color as the soil on which they live, are perfect for burrowing, and are what causes people to confuse them for frogs, but they are lizards. They have sharp side horns, sometimes with a short horn in the middle. As adults, they are between 2 1 .4 inches to 4 1 .4 inches long. The females are usually larger than the males. They breed in late spring and the hatchlings emerge in mid-summer. They burrow into the ground and hibernate over winter.

Their spiny bodies and horns allow them to hide from predators, as well as make them unsavory to the taste. They can inflate themselves like a balloon, and if all else fails, they have this cool trick of shooting a stream of blood from their eyelids.

Horned lizards can be spotted on summer mornings basking in the sun on rocks or open ground before the heat drives them to burrow under the soil. Their main food source is the Harvester ant. These are the big, red ants that clear away all growth from their mound, leaving a wide, circular flat space with a single hole in the middle.

All horned lizards are listed as protected species, but the Texas Horned Lizard has seen a marked decline in population, particularly east of IH-35. Scientists site obvious reasons, such as habitat loss due to urbanization, the pet trade, and becoming food for cats and dogs. However, a peculiar relationship has been found between the introduction of the red imported fire ant and the decline of the Texas Horned lizard.

While horned lizards eat other insects, their main prey is the Harvester ant. You don't see this ant much anymore. This is due to the spread of the imported fire ant westward, and our war against it. The elimination of the Harvester ant by the imported fire ant has sharply decreased food for the horned lizard.

Evidence points to these various reasons for the decline of the Texas Horned Lizard, but scientists are still trying to understand what management actions can be taken to restore the lizard to its full range. You can help by becoming a horned lizard spotter or adopting a habitat to watch.

Your efforts do matter. It is through the work of volunteers in the Texas Horned Lizard Watch that the connection between the fire ant and the horned lizard was made. And, recently, horned lizards were sighted in Rockdale by Watch participants!

Some things you can do: treat fire ant mounds directly instead of broadcasting the pesticide, use native plants in your landscape, especially bunch grasses, leave some open space for horned lizards to bask, and if you have Harvester ants, leave the mounds alone, when possible.

If you spot a horned lizard, don't pick it up. Take pictures of it and note the place and time that you saw it. Also note if you see Harvester ants in the area.

Please contact our local Horned Lizard Watcher, Master Naturalist Carolyn Burford at, or 512- 446-5134.

Better yet, become part of the Texas Horned Lizard Watch yourself.

For more info: www.tpwd. nature_trackers/horned_lizard.

Gause-area resident Shawn Walton is a Master Naturalist with the El Camino Real Chapter.

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2009-05-28 digital edition

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