Q: Many moons ago, when I was a young one growing up in North Texas, I could always find horny toads to play with. Now, the only ones I see are the resin figurines on my bookcase or live critters in a zoo. Where have all the horny toads gone?

Daniel Smith, Wichita Falls

A: The Texanist grew up in Central Texas, and he too had no problem finding horny toads when he was a young one. They seemed to be everywhere back in the seventies. But even so, it was always exciting to spy a diminutive horned beast scampering across the ground. Did you ever roll them over and rub their bellies until they fell asleep? Or catch one and put it on a red ant pile and watch as it snacked on those pesky little devils? Among all the critters with which a young Texan had the opportunity to cross paths, horny toads were certainly a favorite.

Despite their menacing appearance, resembling miniature triceratops as they do, horny toads are actually harmless little creatures. They don’t bite or scratch or stick (if you’re careful) or sting, and their most well-known defense mechanisms really only made them more enticing. When threatened, a horny toad can puff up to twice its normal size, which is remarkable enough. But as every young Texan could once excitedly point out, they also have the ability to shoot a stream of blood from their eyes. Shoot blood from their eyes! If the Texanist has ever heard of a cooler talent, he doesn’t recall it. Sometimes he wishes he could shoot blood from his own eyes. Interactions with curt baristas, surly bartenders, and unwelcome solicitors would certainly go differently.

Here in Texas, we are blessed with three different species of horny toads, which are actually lizards, not toads, or frogs (apologies to Texas Christian University Horned Frog fans). There’s the round-tailed horned lizard (found in the western half of the state), the greater short-horned lizard (found only in isolated spots in far West Texas), and the Texas horned lizard, the most common of our horned lizards, which once roamed the entire state, save for a few spots in deep East Texas.

Like armadillos and longhorns, horny toads are emblematic of the rugged land upon which Texans make their homes. Each of these three, in fact, hold an official state designation. The nine-banded armadillo is the small mammal of Texas; the Texas longhorn is the large mammal of Texas; and the Texas horned lizard reigns as the official state reptile.

Unlike longhorns and armadillos, which are mostly nocturnal, horny toads are fairly easy to catch. It is for this reason that most all Texans of a certain age share similar childhood experiences with them, including you and the Texanist. This infatuation, however, led to massive over collection, one of the reasons that horny toads are not as plentiful today. They were often kept for pets, which was always a bad idea for both the pet and its keeper, as horny toads don’t typically last long in captivity.

Worse, though, is the fact that horny toads were also once a popular curio, even sold in the back of comic books like so many sea monkeys. There’s a theory that the mass popularity of the horny toad can be traced back to one single horned lizard: Old Rip. In case you don’t recall the story, Old Rip made national news in 1928 when he, reportedly, emerged alive and well from a cornerstone time capsule at the Eastland County courthouse after having been placed there thirty-one years prior. Horny toads typically live about six years and so famous was Old Rip, named for Rip Van Winkle, that he embarked on a national tour and even visited Calvin Coolidge in Washington, D.C.

The over collection problem was addressed in 1967 when the Texas Legislature saw fit to protect horny toads from the pet trade, but this was not the end of the horny toad’s troubles. They have also had to deal with the invasion of the dastardly fire ant, the interloper that has been pushing out the less dastardly big red ant, aka harvester ants, which constitute the vast majority of the horny toad’s diet. Fire ants have also caused an uptick in pesticide use, which further plagued big red ants. Fewer big red ants, it’s thought by experts, means fewer horny toads. On top of losing their food source, horny toads have also lost a great deal of habitat due to urban sprawl and increased conversion of wild spaces for agricultural uses. The unfortunate combination of all of these factors has been a marked decline in horny toad populations over the past forty to fifty years. Once solid horny toad country, East and Central Texas are all but devoid of horny toads these days.

Luckily, horny toads are universally beloved by Texans. And, as you well know, when a Texan loves something—after they learn that capturing it and putting it in a shoebox isn’t always the best expression of affection—they protect it fiercely. For this reason, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department placed the Texas horned lizard, as well as the greater short-horned lizard, on the threatened species list in 1977. The official state reptile designation was bestowed in 1993.

There are others pulling for the horny toad too. In conjunction with Parks and Wildlife, TCU, the Fort Worth Zoo, the San Antonio Zoo, and a private non-profit group known as the Horned Lizard Conservation Society are all doing what they can to help the horny toad. Continued study, breeding and reintroduction programs are ongoing. The Fort Worth Zoo, in fact, was the first outfit in the country to successfully breed horned lizards. You may even recall a photo of one of their adorable hatchlings, no bigger than a bottle cap, that understandably went viral after it was posted on the zoo’s Facebook page last summer.

All Texans who are so inclined (and why wouldn’t you be?) have a part to play. Texas Horned Lizard Watch, a program launched by Parks and Wildlife in 1996, allows everyday Texans to participate as “citizen scientists,” performing valuable fieldwork and providing helpful data as either a simple site surveyor or as a slightly more involved transect monitor. Another even easier way to help horny toads is to consider purchasing a Texas conservation license plate, which helps fund conservation research, which extends to the horny toad. The most popular of the available plates, by the way, features an image of the beloved reptile.

Helping the horny toads is an admirable endeavor. What’s good for horny toads, after all, is also good for other critters, including young Texans, who are becoming more and more deprived of a proper Texas upbringing. Which is to say, an upbringing that includes numerous interactions with horny toads.

Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.