KGOU

How Curious: What Happened To All Of The “Horny Toads?”

Sep 10, 2019

KGOU listener Gabe Denton remembers seeing horny toads all the time when he was growing up in Choctaw, but he hasn’t seen one in decades. Denton asked How Curious: What happened?

 

 

Miniature Dinosaurs

The Texas horned lizard, often called a “horny toad” or “horned frog,” is usually no more than five inches long. It has a short, squat build--its genus name, Phrynosoma, means “toad-bodied”--along with rows of spiky scales and two prominent horns growing out of its head. Red, brown and gray spots on the animal’s back can make it nearly impossible to spot in the wild.

 

“It’s a really cute lizard, which is bizarre to say,” said Cameron Siler, Associate Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

 

 

Texas horned lizards are listed as a “species of greatest conservation need” and a “species of special concern” by Oklahoma's Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Credit Claire Donnelly / KGOU

The species lives in the south-central United States, ranging from much of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico into parts of northern Mexico. It is active in warm weather and burrows underground to hibernate when temperatures drop.

“A Silent Extinction”

 

The region’s Texas horned lizard population has declined over the years.

 

Exact numbers are hard to find, but Texas considers the Texas horned lizard to be threatened, while the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation lists it as a “species of greatest conservation need” and a “species of special concern.”

A horny toad wears a radio transmitter "backpack," allowing researchers to track its movements around Tinker Air Force Base.
Credit Claire Donnelly / KGOU

“Horny toads in Oklahoma are in the midst of a silent extinction,” said Samuel Elias, an ecology and evolutionary biology Ph.D. student at the University of Oklahoma.

 

 

Elias is one of several researchers in the state studying Texas horned lizards with the goal of conserving them. In August, he received $40,000 from the National Science Foundation to research the reptiles in collaboration with the Oklahoma City Zoo and the Sam Noble Museum. He plans to start a program that raises horned lizards in the zoo’s Lizard Lab before releasing them into the wild. Elias will then study the lizards’ gut bacteria to better understand how captivity affects these animals.

 

About 54 Texas horned lizards currently live on Tinker Air Force Base, where a separate team of scientists tracks them using tiny silicone “backpacks.” The technology, called radio telemetry, lets researchers catalog the animals’ GPS coordinates and learn more about their habits.

 

 

Researcher Miranda Vesy uses radio telemetry technology to track the horned lizards living on Tinker Air Force Base.
Credit Claire Donnelly / KGOU

“We’re actually getting to see what these lizards are doing on a day-to-day basis,” said Miranda Vesy, an OU herpetology graduate student working on the Tinker project, which has followed more than 1,000 of the reptiles since 2003.

The 1000th lizard recorded in the Tinker Air Force Base study since it began in 2003.
Credit Claire Donnelly / KGOU

Ray Moody, a natural resources biologist at Tinker, said the team has found the species needs a mix of vegetation types in its habitat.  Now, he said, scientists can better manage the natural areas on base, ensuring there’s a mosaic of shrubs, grass and bare ground and hopefully helping the lizards survive.

According to Moody, researchers on the base saw a Texas horned lizard squirt blood out of its eyes when it was attacked by a snake. Scientists previously theorized the lizards reserved that response for canine predators like dogs and coyotes. Moody said with all of the new data, there are always more questions.

 

“We need to do more studies across the state. We just need more information about the horned lizard,” Moody said.

Why Are They Declining?

The Texas horned lizard faces two big threats: invasive ants and humans.

A sign decorates the door to a Tinker Air Force Base lab where researchers tag and study the Texas horned lizard.
Credit Claire Donnelly / KGOU

Siler at the Sam Noble Museum said invasive ant species from Central and South America, like fire ants, are migrating north with the changing climate. They compete with native ants--the Texas horned lizard’s main source of food. Fire ants also attack the lizard’s nests and eat its eggs.

 

 

Habitat destruction across Texas and Oklahoma has also hampered these native reptiles.

“As we develop our cities and towns and we’re laying more cement and developing more habitat, we’re actually taking away a lot of native environments that are suitable for Texas horned lizards,” Siler said.

There are also anecdotes of people collecting and selling the lizards as pets in the past, which is now illegal in both Texas and Oklahoma.

Though KGOU listener Gabe Denton may not be seeing as many so-called horny toads, biologists are working to change that.

 

How Curious is a production of KGOU Radio. It’s produced by Claire Donnelly and this episode was edited by Caroline Halter. David Graey composed the theme music.

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