Texas Primer: The Horny Toad

It’s the ugliest critter in Texas. We’d hate to see it go.

The horny toad isn’t really a toad. It’s a lizard—strictly speaking, a horned lizard. But if you grew up in Texas, you call it a horny toad. With the exception of the prissy folks at Texas Christian University—who term their mascot a horned frog—anyone who doesn’t say “horny toad” brands himself an outsider.

There are three species of horny toad in Texas. The round-tailed variety lives in the Panhandle and the Trans-Pecos, and the mountain short-horned is limited to the Guadalupe and Davis mountains. The kind most of us know is the Texas horned lizard ( Phyrnosoma cornutum ), which is found all over the state. It measures from three to five inches, though a hatchling may barely reach an inch. Young are born in late summer or early fall, since horny toads, despite their name, usually mate only once a year.

The Texas horned lizard has yellow, brown, and tan markings that provide camouflage, and protective spikes and horns that call to mind its distant relative triceratops. Nonetheless, the horny toad falls prey to many larger predators, and in fact it is a frequent item in the diet of hawks and snakes. But because it is a reptile, its worst enemy is cold weather. During the day it soaks up sun, raising up on its forelegs and flattening its ribs to expose as much body surface as possible. At night it keeps warm by burrowing into sand or dirt; then, in the morning, it pokes out its head and forces blood into large cavities in its skull. By letting the blood heat up in the sun and shunting the warmed blood back into its sluggish body, it raises the temperature enough to get moving. The elaborate blood circulation system in its head is also responsible for an amazing ability of the horny toad, one that many people believe is a myth: It squirts blood from its eyes. The horny toad resorts to this scare tactic when it is trapped or afraid, forcing its blood pressure to rise so rapidly that the cavities in its head fill up and burst at the corners of its eyes, spraying whatever is scaring it with blood.

The most famous Texas horny toad was Old Rip, who was placed inside the cornerstone of the old Eastland County courthouse when it was built in 1897. Thirty-one years later the courthouse was torn down and, legend has it, there in the cornerstone was Old Rip, none too perky but still alive. Named after Rip Van Winkle, he went on tour and was exhibited to thousands of people, including then-president Calvin Coolidge (it was reputedly one of the few times that solemn gent smiled). When Old Rip died, his body was embalmed, and it is still on display in Eastland. Biologists scoff at the idea that Old Rip lived 31 years; most horny toads live a mere 6 or so.

Horny toads don’t adjust well to captivity. Still, most grown-up Texans have had, at one time or another, a horny toad for a pet. Its appeal is the combination of a fierce appearance and an amiable personality. You can hold one in your hand, turn it over on its back, and—if you can withstand the tickling of its horns—stroke its stomach until it dozes off. Unfortunately, the horny toad’s appeal is in part responsible for the decline in its numbers. In the fifties and early sixties, every tourist trap on every Texas highway sold horny toads as souvenirs. Some collectors gathered hundreds of thousands in a single year by paying schoolchildren a nickel for each specimen they brought in. Out of their natural home, the animals died, and so the state began protecting the Texas horned lizard in 1967. Today it is illegal even to own one.

A second factor in the demise of the horny toad was pesticides. Chemical sprays that didn’t kill the creature itself killed harvester ants, its main food supply. A horny toad eats dozens of ants at one sitting; one spraying kills thousands. Urbanization also hurt horny toads: Widespread construction tore up their habitat. They actually liked highway asphalt, which retained enough heat to make an ideal lounging spot, but because horny toads instinctively freeze when they see movement, onrushing cars flattened them left and right. Nevertheless, there are still horny toads in Texas. So next time you’re in the country, drinking up the Texas sun, know you are not alone.

Tags: THE CULTURE

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