The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Horny Toads

Jim Dillard, Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Mineral Wells

Several years back as I drove through a pasture on a ranch east of town, something caught my eye as it scurried across the road in front of the truck. It wasn’t big and I’m not sure why I even stopped to get out and take a look, but there sitting in a spot of bare ground was a quarter-size baby horny toad. I’d seen lots of them over the years but never one so small. I caught it and held it in my hand for a few minutes to relish the once in a lifetime experience. After taking its photo, I let it go on its way, hoping somehow the little fellow might survive but knowing the odds were against it. The roadrunner I’d seen back down the road would make a meal out of him if he spotted it. It would also be easy pickings for any butcherbird, hawk, snake, fox or coyote in the area. This encounter brought back memories of playing with these fascinating reptiles as a kid growing up in the Blackland farming country down in central Texas.

You’d have to be from another planet or had your head buried in the sand these days not to know that horny toads or horned frogs, as they’re sometimes called (particularly over in Fort Worth at TCU), are neither toads nor frogs. They’re more correctly known by their common name as horned lizards. Of the three species of horned lizards found in Texas, the Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum) is the most widely distributed. They’re found throughout Texas except for areas in extreme East Texas. Their range extends from southern Kansas, southeastern Arizona into Mexico. The mountain short horned lizard (P. douglassii hernandesi) occurs only in the forested mountains of the Guadalupe and Davis Mountains of West Texas and northward into New Mexico, Colorado and northwestern Arizona. Round tailed horned lizards (P. modestum) are found in suitable habitat in the western half of Texas to southeastern Arizona and far southward into Mexico.

Texas horned lizards are three and one-half to six inches long: the record is seven and one-eighth inches. They have a broad flattened body, pointed snout, short legs and short tail. There is a prominent row of spines on their head with the two center ones elongated and resembling horns. Spines also protrude from either side of their throat and two rows are found along the side of their body. Coloration varies from light brown, tan to gray with dark brown spots rimmed in yellow or white. Beneath, the light gray or tan belly scales are keeled. A mid-dorsal white or beige line extends from the head to the base of the tail. Wide dark lines also radiate from their eye downward and across the top of the head.

Their horned lizard camo serves them well to elude predators by blending in with their surroundings, thus making detection by prying eyes more difficult. Their first reaction when agitated or threatened is to either run like heck or flatten out and remain motionless until danger passes. If that doesn’t work, they’ll inflate their body, thus making them appear larger than life and less appetizing to predators. Any snake that’s ever attempted to swallow a Texas horned lizards backwards soon learns it just doesn’t’ work. If worse comes to worse, they’ll rise up on their legs, hiss and squirt a stream of blood from the corner of their eye to thwart advances of a tormentor, including little boys bent on pestering them. Researchers have documented that Texas horned lizards can expel up to one-third of their body’s blood supply doing this.

Ants make up the bulk of their diet, particularly red harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex spp.), but they also eat spiders, grasshoppers, beetles, larvae and other small insects. Horned lizards will literally camp out around a red ant mound or trail and pick them off coming and going with a flick of their tongue. Finding little pellets of excreted ant exoskeletons around a red ant mound is a sure sign you’re in a horned lizard’s territory. Use of pesticides to kill crop pests and ants is thought to have contributed to the decline in horned lizard populations by diminishing their ant food supplies. Today, red harvester ants have to compete with fire ants for food and space on the landscape and guess who’s winning that battle. Combined with long-term alterations of their habitat, the future does not look too bright for Texas horned lizards. However, west of a line from Del Rio to Abilene and north, they’re still relatively abundant.

Like many other lizard species, Texas horned lizards thermoregulate their body temperature by basking in the sun or move underground or to shady areas to cool off if necessary during the heat of the day. When temperatures begin to cool during early fall, they go into hibernation in burrows or other underground cavities. Their metabolism slows down until April or May when they’ll emerge ready to breed. Females will carry eggs for a period of time and then deposit them in a nest she’ll dig at the end of a five to seven inch slanted tunnel. There, she’ll lay 13-45 eggs in two or three soil packed layers. In five to seven weeks, the one and one-quarter inch young emerge using their ‘egg tooth’ to help scratch their way to the surface.

Perhaps the most famous Texas horned lizard was O’l Rip over in Eastland County. In July of 1897, the citizens of Eastland County began constructed a new courthouse to replace their old one that had burned. In a dedication ceremony, several items were placed in the cornerstone of the new building including a Bible, various mementos and a Texas horned lizard brought to the festivities by the County Clerk’s son. When another courthouse was to be constructed on the site some 31 years later, a crowd of 3,000 turned out to witness the opening of the time capsule in old courthouse’s cornerstone. When O’l Rip was removed from his tomb, low and behold he began to wiggle and come alive. They say the crowd went wild. There were skeptics, but to this day, you don’t question the authenticity of this event when in Eastland. O’l Rip died a year later from complications of pneumonia and today is on display in the Eastland County Courthouse. When John Connolly was running for governor back in 1962, he posed with O’l Rip and in handling him, accidentally pulled his leg off, much to the chagrin of county officials. He’s been stolen a couple of other times since but today remains under lock and key at the courthouse.

The Texas horned lizard is classified as a threatened species and may not be collected or possessed, so just leave’um where you find’um and enjoy’um in the wild. Until next time, I’ll see you down the road and God Bless America!

7 Comments:

At 9:20 PM, Blogger Cowtown Pattie said...

I remember finding lots and lots of horny toads when I was young and lived in rural areas - Poolville and Springtown. Sad their population seems diminishing...

 
At 10:02 PM, Blogger bill said...

Would that it were still true that "they're found throughout Texas."

 
At 2:26 PM, Anonymous Ronald L. Hill said...

ronny

It would be areal joy to see
the horned toad agin and the
small babies about the size
of your thumb nail. I live
in Paris, Texas and used to
see them every where. I would
like to know where I could go
to see them again. 2:21 PM

 
At 8:39 PM, Blogger Paula said...

I live in Atascosa county and we haven't seen a horny toad in years. Have lots of memories of them though. Also there was a red velvety bug that came out after a rain that we never see. We called them rain bugs.

 
At 10:31 AM, Anonymous Jonni said...

My son found a baby horny toad near Odessa, TX. I have a picture if you are interested. It is such a joy to see a baby again, just to hope that maybe they are making a comeback!!

 
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