Horned Lizards – They Aren’t Toads! 2 Oct 2013

As a kid in Dallas back in the days when dinosaurs walked the earth, I vividly remember catching and playing with horny toads. They were everywhere. Old timers in East Texas tell me they were common here too. When we’d chase them, they’d flatten out to an amazing thinness or suck in air and puff up. Flip them on their backs and gently stroke their belly, and they “went to sleep,” just lying there in a trance. They were gentle, interesting, and fun. Sometimes, when we weren’t running doodlebug contests, we’d race horned toads instead.

But, just a durn second! While horned they are, toads they are not. Toads are amphibians and have skin; lizards have scales, and our “horny toads” are definitely scaly. So, the bottom line is that these little critters are horned lizards, not toads. Of course, this bit of information won’t change a thing in Texas. Here they’ll always be “horny toads” or even more Texan – “Horned Frogs” – a name with deeply sacred significance to Texas’ official religion – football, especially at TCU where they are the official mascot.

Horned lizards have ancient roots. Their fossil remains date back 15-25 million years and are represented in ancient Indian designs on pottery, petroglyphs, and as carved figures of the “ancient ones,” the Anasazi, Hohokam, Mogollon, and Mimbres cultures. Hopi, Navajo, Papago, Pima, and Zuni, among others, were also aware of horned lizards, and believed them to be sacred and possessed of great power.

An old Navajo tale recounts a battle between “Old Grandfather” – the horned lizard, and Lightning. During their lengthy harangue Grandfather, unobserved, quickly slipped out of his thorny skin, hanging it in plain sight on a Grama Grass stem while he hid behind a rock yelling insults. Lightning, apparently a little shy on eyesight, found that his bolts had no effect at all on Grandfather’s empty hide. Earth-shaking thunder didn’t frighten him either. Finally, his power drained, Lightning, and a very tired Thunderbird, drifted away into the sunset affirming to all the creatures that Grandfather was the most powerful animal on the earth. Traditional Navajos may pick up a horned lizard, but believe it must be placed gently back in its original location and position to avoid suffering evil and dangerous consequences.

Horned lizards generally protect themselves by blending into their background, remaining motionless, and being very tough to swallow. Their spiny skins and heads make them quite a mouthful, and some animals have been found dead with a horned lizard jammed in their mouth or throat.

Their most unusual defense is unique. They squirt blood out of the corner of their eyes when they’re molested! Dogs will drop a squirting horned toad like a hot potato and sling their head around trying to get rid of the stuff. Apparently, it tastes terrible, but I’ve never gotten a dog to explain the problem clearly.

For years, I was convinced this behavior was just a tall tale, since I’d never witnessed it. Then one summer, while working as a Park Ranger at Grand Canyon National Park, I picked one up to show to some visitors on a nature walk. Telling them the “myth” about blood squirting, I tapped the horny little beast between the eyes with a pencil to prove it wasn’t true. Much to my amazement and shock, it squirted twin, indelible blots of blood onto my very expensive uniform shirt!

So, where’d they all go? In 22 years I have yet to see one in our area. Information from Chip Ruthven with Texas Parks and Wildlife indicates that a tremendous decline in numbers occurred during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and he suggests that loss of habitat, perhaps from brush control and livestock over-grazing, collection for the pet trade, and the introduction of fire ants have been responsible. Them durn "far aint’s” are at it again! Although horned lizards eat other ants, fire ants may be too spicy for them.

Since 1967 the horned lizard has been legally protected in Texas, and is our state reptile. If you see one, count yourself lucky. But if you pick up “Old Grandfather,” take a lesson from the Navajo and put it back exactly the way you found it. Not only is it a fragile and disappearing part of our Texas heritage, you also don’t want to tempt fate.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click paulrisk2@gmail.com to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.