For the love of a horned lizard

Texas are rallying to save one of their favorite reptile species

08-01-2001 // Gary Lantz

Texas horned lizards were once so common that in the 1950s a small West Texas gas station paid local kids a nickel for each reptile they collected, and then gave one to each customer who bought a full tank of gas. On dusty farms and ranches and in ramshackle oil-field camps in parts of the Great Plains, children played with the six-inch lizards--once numbering in the thousands--as if they were backyard pets. Some residents remember hitching the reptiles to toy Matchbox wagons with harnesses of thread. One woman even recalls sewing dresses for them. Times have changed.

Today, with the species' numbers dwindling, nostalgic residents of Oklahoma and Texas are teaming with wildlife biologists to save the lizards before they disappear from the wild. "Although we can't quote exact numbers, most biologists agree there has been a steady decline of Texas horned lizard numbers over the past 20 years," says Jeremy Garrett of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. He blames the reptiles' decline on destruction of habitat, collisions with vehicles, predation by house cats, illegal collection for the pet trade and use of insecticides that exterminate the lizards' prey.

In Texas, horned lizards have disappeared from at least 30 percent of their historic range, mostly in the central and eastern portions, according to state biologists. The state protected the species as threatened in 1977, and both Texas and Oklahoma now prohibit collection. Yet the species still shows up in pet stores as far away as New Jersey.

The Texas horned lizard, one of 14 similar species from southern Canada to Central America, live primarily in the deserts and plains of Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. To survive, each lizard needs some six acres with enough vegetation to escape predators and find shade on sweltering summer afternoons. The creatures spend winter months hibernating beneath rocks and woodpiles or in burrows.

Known also as "horny toads," the lizards are named for their prominent horns. But their most fascinating feature is their ability to eject a stream of blood from their eyes as far as seven feet when threatened. The creatures also hiss, bite and inflate into a spiny, unpalatable-looking reptilian pincushion to deter predators such as bobcats, owls, roadrunners and snakes.

When not on the defensive, the reptiles sunbathe or use their sticky tongues to slurp up as many as 200 harvester ants a day. Mature horned lizards are resistant to the ants´ venom (which causes a fiery sting in humans), but they are not immune to the effects of South American fire ants, accidentally introduced early last century. Not only do the lizards not eat the invading ants, but these ants attack the less pugnacious harvester ants, decimating the lizards´ main food source. Insecticides used to control the fire ant plague further destroy the harvester ant population.

To help the reptiles survive, a group of Texans formed the Texas Chapter of the Horned Lizard Conservation Society in 1990. Its projects include urging homeowners to stop spraying pesticides on harvester ant mounds and working with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's lizard watch program to encourage citizen participation in an ongoing state horned lizard census.

Near Laredo, reseachers from Texas A&M University-Kingsville are also trying to learn more about the lizards by fitting them with hand-sewn backpacks containing dime-sized radio transmitters that track movements, sleep habits and hibernation. And in central Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University graduate students are following the footprints of 40 horned lizards using fluorescent powder and a portable ultraviolet lamp to determine home ranges. Similar to Texas, Oklahoma's state wildlife department also asks citizens to report lizard sightings on its Web site or by calling its horny toad hotline. "We're starting to develop a decent distribution map simply from the reports we've gathered," Garrett says.

Bill Brooks, president of the Texas Chapter, says his group continues to get dozens of calls and letters every month concerning the reptile's plight. "We're tempted to say the horned lizard is making a slight comeback," says Brooks. "We continue to get new sightings, and we can only hope this is due to actual population growth rather than increased interest. But at the moment, it's a call that remains too close to make."

Oklahoma writer Gary Lantz has fond memories of growing up in the heart of horned lizard territory.

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