The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Saturday, March 29, 2003

The Little Monster
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, March 29, 2003, © 2004

A creature that shoots a stream of blood from its eyes surely must be a monster in a video game. "Help! It is Lord Hemogag --- Zap him!"

Not true! It is real and it is here, the Texas State Reptile, actually: a Texas Horned Lizard. Sports teams borrow its name; advertisers use it in their ads; and, regrettably, people remove it from the wild to keep as a pet. This is a bad idea, because the lizards usually die.

The "Horny Toad" or "Horned Frog" is found statewide except for eastern Texas, and ranges north to Kansas and south into Mexico. There are 13 species in the New World, some of which even give birth to their young instead of laying eggs. The speciesprefers arid and semi-arid regions with sandy and loamy soil for burrowing. You can find them up to 6000 feet, but they really like level terrain with sparse vegetation. A threatened species, their decline is due to the usual reasons: habitat loss, pesticides and the illiegal pet trade.

Despite the fact that it only reaches a length of four inches, this is one mean-looking critter. The body is spiny and fringed beneath. Sweeping from the back of the head are two long horns --- if enlarged many times the little terror could be a dinosaur in a Spielberg movie. To the contrary, this reptile is gentle and harmless.

There are many enemies: dogs, cats, hawks, and other predators. Because of this, it needs to develop certain defensive moves. One is flattening against the earth where its brown to gray coloration blends with the soil. It may also dash a short distance and stop dead, relying on its camouflage to protect it. Another remarkable move can be alarming if you are squeamish. Under stress it increases its blood pressure to the point that blood will squirt from the corners of its eyes. (Ever feel like that?) This is a last resort defense. However, it does not always do this. I have met those who say they have handled them and did not see this phenomenon.

The Horned Lizard's favorite food is the Harvester Ant, although it will eat other insects. The tongue darts out, and the prey is swallowed in one gulp.

This might help you understand a typical horned lizard day:
1. Get up before sunrise.
2. Put your back to the sun.
3. Watch for predators.
4. Warm up your blood vessels.
5. Avoid overheating later in the day...find shade.
6. Hunt and eat Harvest Ants.
7.. Watch for predators.

And for a seasonal agenda:
1. Hibernate from fall to spring.
2. Wake up.
3. Watch for predators.
4. Mate.
5. Watch for predators.
6. Lay up to 45 eggs.
7. Watch 'em hatch.
8. Watch for predators.

There is a Horned Lizard Conservation Society whose Web site details various methods to preserve this little wonder. These include sane pesticide use, elimination of the competitor Fire Ants, wise land measures and control of the illegal pet trade. A great feature is a poignant narrative by the short story writer and Texan, William Sidney Porter, better known as O.Henry. It involves a
young Texas Ranger, a Mexican desperado and a Horned Lizard named Muriel!

The feelings that Texans have for this little lizard are expressed by Channel 5's videographer and journalist Richard Moore: "Horny toads have made quite an impression on me for just about as long as I can remember. Actually, my earliest wildliferecollection is my fascination with this curious animal. When I was a youngster growing up on West Lincoln in Harlingen, I was able to go out my front door and soon find one or two. Rather than take one home and put it in a box, my favorite pastime was to place it near a red ant bed and watch it snap up the juicy quarry. To this day, I remain fond of the little rascals who, despite their inability to elude even a determined youngster, manage somehow to survive in the South Texas wildlands."

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