Sometimes called a horny toad, this fascinating creature is actually a lizard, the Texas Horned Lizard. It became the official state reptile in 1993. How many states have an official reptile?
Sun worshippers, Texas horned lizards are most often found in the open country-side, at home with mesquite, cactus and low brush. They like loose sandy soils where they can quickly burrow down when threatened. Harvester ants make up about 70% of their diet, but they will feast on other insects when they can’t find ants. So where you see harvester ant colonies and sandy soils, you may well find these lizards.
Native Americans have looked to the horned lizard as a symbol good health, strength and as a keeper of secrets. Its image has appeared on pottery and petroglyphs as far back as 4000 years ago.
As you can see from the picture above, the horned lizard uses its coloration as camouflage as a first line of defence. It took an eagle-eye’d photographer to spot this guy. In addition to their coloration, horned lizards have other protective skills. The horns and spines on the top of their heads are actually extensions of their skeletal structure and they can puff up their bodies to make them appear larger and more threatening. This also causes their scales to stick out, and combined with the spines, makes them a painful treat to eat. Plus, they can squirt blood out of the corner of their eyes for a distance of up to 5 feet! If that isn’t gross enough, consider that the blood contains chemicals which makes it taste horrible. (Another animal that uses bad taste as a protective technique is the monarch butterfly. )
With all of those lovely protective mechanisms, why has the population been declining for the past 50 years? If you guessed that man has played a key role, you would be right. Up until 1967, when the Texas legislature passed a law protecting our favorite lizard, tens of thousands of horned lizards were taken out of Texas, some dead and stuffed as souvenirs, some alive for pets, many soon to be dead as they were removed from their habitat. Add this to the overuse of pesticides and the increasing population of red fire ants, who compete for harvester ants, and you can easily see how it became necessary to officially name the Texas horned lizard as a protected species.
Texas Parks and Wildlife has set up a program to help monitor the status of our state reptile. If you’d like to help, check out their website: Texas Horned Lizard Watch.