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Our Toad to Ruin

They’re on our license plates. They’re our school mascots. They’re our state reptile. But when was the last time you saw a horny toad in the wild? The mysterious disappearance of Texas’s most beloved critter and the desperate attempts to save it.  

By June 2015Comments

Photograph by Randal Ford

The most famous lizard in Texas history came from Eastland, a small town about a hundred miles west of Fort Worth. The reptile in question began its ascent to national notoriety one day in 1897, when the town leaders gathered to celebrate the groundbreaking on a new courthouse being built to replace the one that had burned down the previous year. During the ceremony, justice of the peace Ernest Wood saw his four-year-old son playing with a Texas horned lizard, a small, sandy-colored, ant-eating reptile with a pair of horns on its head and jagged spines protruding from its blunt snout to its stubby tail. The lizard, Phrynosoma cornutum, is frequently called a horny toad, and its genus directly translates to “toad-bodied,” ascribed to the lizard’s froglike broad body and awkward gait. In the wild they normally hibernate between October and April, a behavior that possibly inspired an old cowboy myth that horned lizards can live without food or water for one hundred years. That day in Eastland, Wood decided to test it.

The cornerstone of the courthouse was to be hollowed out and used as a time capsule; Wood offered up the lizard, which his son had named Blinky. It was placed in the capsule, along with a Bible and several newspapers and coins, and sealed in. Three decades later, according to legend, when the courthouse was demolished to make way for another, a crowd of three thousand was astonished to see a dusty lizard pulled from the cornerstone still alive. It had a broken leg, and the horns on its head were worn down, as if it had tried to escape, but otherwise it was a healthy, breathing horned lizard. Renamed Old Rip after Rip Van Winkle, the lizard became an instant celebrity and even visited President Calvin Coolidge in Washington, D.C. If a Texas reptile was destined to end up at the White House, it naturally had to be a horny toad.

The lizards have been revered by Texans since long before Old Rip, their cultural significance stretching back before there was a Texas. The Anasazi, Hohokam, Mogollon, and Mimbres cultures painted or carved horned lizards on pottery, rocks, and shells that date back thousands of years. The Navajo, Hopi, Papago, Pima, Tarahumara, and Zuni mythologies viewed horned lizards as symbols of strength. Meriwether Lewis, during his two-year exploration with William Clark of the territory in the Louisiana Purchase, wrote about a “horned lizzard.” And early Texas pioneers, homesteaders, ranchers, and naturalists became enamored of the creatures. More recently, in 1993, the Legislature declared the horned lizard the official state reptile, and you can now buy a Texas license plate with a horned lizard on it. You can also enjoy a horny toad cocktail (vodka, triple sec, and lemonade), dine at the Horny Toad Cafe and Bar in Denton, and buy a chopper from the Horny Toad Harley Davidson dealership, in Temple. Horned Frogs remain the mascot for Texas Christian University, which has one of the top college football teams in the nation, and the town of Kenedy was designated by law the official Horned Lizard Capital of Texas. These lizards, toads, frogs—whatever you call them—are part of Texas lore.

Wade Sherbrooke, a retired herpetologist and author of the definitive field guide Introduction to Horned Lizards of North America said people’s fascination with the horned lizards has to do with the juxtaposition of their fierce appearance—the spiked domes and almost angry faces—and their gentle and harmless nature. “They don’t bite, they don’t scratch, they’re very placid animals,” Sherbrooke told me by phone from his home in Arizona. “They’re unusual in shape and design, and so they’re attractive in that way. They’re part of the natural world that one can easily engage without being fearful.”

Because of the lizard’s docile nature and slow reflexes, any Texas kid with a bit of curiosity can easily catch and play with one. And, until recent years, they weren’t hard to find. Texas horned lizards have historically been among the most abundant of the seventeen species of horned lizards, all native to the plains and deserts of North America. What distinguishes the Texas horned lizard from the others are the two prominent horns on its head and the white stripe running down its back. Texas horned lizard populations stretch into Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, southeastern Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, as well as much of Mexico. Based on museum records and anecdotal evidence, they were once seen in most of Texas’s 254 counties in great numbers. But not anymore.

Beginning about fifty years ago, Texas horned lizard populations in the state, especially in the eastern half, started to decline, and they have continued to drop to this day. By the late sixties, people noticed that they didn’t see horny toads as often. But because they can be well camouflaged—and no one has ever counted all of Texas’s horned lizards—it’s difficult to quantify the population and its decline. Wendy Hodges, a herpetologist and conservationist, undertook a statewide horned lizard survey in 1992 to try to pinpoint how many were left. Hodges and four field assistants visited 99 locations where horned lizards had once thrived and found them at less than half. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which bills itself the world’s largest global environmental organization, estimates that there are probably about 100,000 Texas horned lizards in the wild. Though the species is threatened, extinction is not imminent. The group ranks the lizards in its “least concern” category. Still, most recorded histories and recent research suggest that the current population is a tiny fraction of what it once was.

Why horny toads have been dying off remains a mystery. “There have been lots of theories,” said Andrew Gluesenkamp, the state herpetologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “To this date, I could not put my finger on a single smoking gun.” The most commonly blamed culprits are fire ants, over-collection, and habitat destruction. It turns out that horned lizards, despite their legendary ability to endure years of deprivation, are quite fragile.

In response to the decline, the Legislature passed a law in 1967 banning the collection, export, and sale of horned lizards. Texas has never exactly led the way on environmental issues, so it’s an indication of the esteem in which they’re held that horned lizards gained such protection. Still, their numbers continued to dwindle. In 1990 a group of concerned Texans formed the Horned Lizard Conservation Society, which is working to discover what’s causing the disappearance of the horny toads and partnering with ranchers, farmers, and landowners to protect them. As horned lizards continue to vanish, the conservationists fear that something else will be lost to history: a piece of their heritage, a unique connection to the Texas of their childhoods. So they’re trying to bring the toads back.

Bill Brooks—a 62-year-old self-taught herpetologist and the head of the Horned Lizard Conservation Society—is more than a little worried. He is standing on a small, grassy lot in a suburban town outside Austin, a place he believes is home to a population of the increasingly rare animal. Brooks can tell something is wrong. His beard and near-platinum mane, tied into a ponytail, frame sharp blue eyes that can see, almost as if with a sixth sense, the faint lines left by a mower. “This has been mowed recently, which is, of course, not good for ’em,” he tells me, half thinking out loud. Brooks has delivered us to this spot to find Central Texas’s last horned lizards. He asked me to keep the name of the town secret; the fewer people who know where to find horned lizards, he reasons, the fewer lizards that will end up as pets, that is to say, dead.

As we scour the lot, looking for any signs of movement, he assigns me a subsection to patrol and gives me loose instructions: the dry brown grass is a perfect camouflage for horned lizards, which can have regional color variations that match their surroundings, and the only real way to find them is to scare them into running. Brooks has spent the majority of his life around reptiles, looking for them, raising them, and learning from them, so if there’s anyone who can find a horned lizard, I believe it to be him.

I shuffle along the edges of the field, passing by colonies of harvester ants—a horned lizard’s favorite food—frequently doubling back to make sure I cover every inch of my area. No luck. There’s an art to finding horned lizards, Brooks tells me. Move too slow and the lizards will hunker down. Move too fast and you won’t see them. My every step unsettles bees, grasshoppers, and crickets from their moorings, but no horned lizards. We hunt, yards apart, as the August sun blazes down on us.

Walking through this field, Brooks is in his element, pointing out pipe vine, windmill grass, and wild buckwheat. The only thing he can’t seem to find is a horned lizard. He comes across a bed of harvester ants. Where there are harvester ants, there should be horned lizards. “Here’s your Blue Bell Ice Cream,” Brooks proclaims. “Now, where are ya?” After about an hour of searching, Brooks concedes defeat. Though there are plenty of harvester ants, the horny toads are nowhere to be found. It is close to noon, and if there are any toads living in this field, he says, they are hiding from the heat.

“Disappointing,” Brooks says back in his van, bemoaning the fact that, for the first time, he hadn’t seen horned lizards in this area. Desperate to catch a glimpse of one, we drive around the town a little longer to see if another spot jumps out at Brooks before we give up.

Brooks was born and raised in San Antonio in the fifties, a time, he says, when the lizards were on every abandoned lot in the city. He talks about it now as if it were a dream. “When I was younger, I went out with seven of my buddies and we caught a hundred one afternoon. Inside Loop 410, in San Antonio. This is inside San Antonio!” he said excitedly, talking about one of the major highways in what is now the seventh-largest city in the country.

Brooks studied biology at the University of Texas but never finished his degree. He was later hired to care for the animals that UT biopsychology graduate students worked with for their theses. He retired from UT in 2004 and then spent a few years working in state parks. He still gives as many as three talks a month on horned lizards and Central Texas reptiles. He goes to wilderness clubs and local chapters of the Audubon Society; every month or two, he talks to a classroom in Bastrop or the surrounding counties.

I first sat down with him a few years ago at his new house in Paige, about 45 minutes east of Austin. He was still moving his belongings over from his old house, which was damaged in the massive 2011 Bastrop fire. Brooks now lives in a modest home surrounded by a large, unkempt lawn, which has generated some anonymous complaints. The lot across the street is tightly manicured; he jokingly calls it “the golf course.” His place is a cozy mix of clutter, including horned lizard artwork. A big plush horned lizard rests near the front door. Brooks has spent the past 25 years working to protect the lizards as a charter member of the conservation society; despite his efforts, his organization, like the toads, may face a challenging future. Membership is down dramatically from the society’s heyday in the early aughts, from more than 600 members to just 220, and Brooks knows that with fewer horned lizards around, getting new members—particularly younger Texans—to join the cause will be difficult. “The hardest thing I have to do is get kids to miss something they’ve never seen,” he said.

Brooks’s generation, those who grew up with horned lizards, is getting older, and he fears that once they’re gone there will be no one left to care. So he busies himself trying to get young people excited about toads. Brooks brings horned lizard models into classrooms. He thinks that having students hold and examine the models is a good way to get kids interested in toad conservation. “They’re just fascinating animals, and if you introduce kids to these animals, sometimes it’ll hook them,” he said. Kids love to hear about the horned lizard’s most famous defense—squirting blood from its tear ducts at a distance of up to six feet—but Brooks figures that only 20 to 30 percent of the students he talks to have seen a horned lizard or know what one is.

The biggest horned lizard population crash in Texas happened between the late sixties and early seventies. Herpetologists and conservationists have spent the time since looking for the cause. Of all the potential killers—the pet trade, pesticides, development, nonnative species—it’s the fire ants, the ravenous South American species Solenopsis invicta, that get the most blame for horned lizards’ woes. These ants were accidentally introduced to the United States in the thirties, via cargo ships entering Mobile, Alabama, and have now spread to more than 320 million acres in fifteen states. The ants are voracious predators, have potent stings, and cause an estimated $6 billion in damage every year, including $1 billion in Texas, where they are the main reason for traffic light outages (the ants get into electrical boxes and attack the wiring). They tear through golf courses, infest cemeteries, and can even attack and swarm cattle. The ants will also attack adult horned lizards and can kill vulnerable hatchlings. They are just as aggressive against other ants and have outcompeted the toads’ main source of food.

Fire ants—along with the heavy-handed use of pesticides by the federal government, which has airdropped millions of pounds of poison to combat the invasion—have devastated harvester ant populations all across the state. Texas horned lizards’ diet is close to 70 percent harvester ants, and an adult lizard may eat hundreds of ants a day. The lizards often sit along the carved trails the ants make while foraging seeds, picking off the big ones and swallowing them whole. Harvester ants and horned lizards are a linked species: except in a few unusual cases, if you don’t have harvester ants, you don’t have horned lizards. But fire ants weren’t the toads’ original tormentors; they didn’t even reach Texas until the eighties, after the horned lizard decline was well under way. “Fire ants are a problem to everything that touches the ground, but it wasn’t fire ants that caused this first drop-off,” Brooks said.

It was, most experts say, humans. Throughout the twentieth century, horned lizards were nearly exported out of existence in many parts of the state. They became a mainstay in the curio business—killed, stuffed, and used as adornments for ashtrays, paperweights, and ornamental bases. Companies sold live horned lizards through comic book mail-order novelty ads alongside x-ray specs and sea monkeys. Some gas stations gave away a horned lizard with every fill-up. Children were enlisted in the effort, collecting sacksful to sell or take home as pets. “In the early days, it was a nightmare,” Brooks said. “Some little boys supported their movie and ice cream habits over the summer by collecting horned lizards and mailing them to New York.”

Jerry Mayfield was one of those boys. Mayfield, an Austin naturalist who grew up just south of the Texas Panhandle, remembers, “Kids had toys, and I just thought it was an extension of our toys. When you’d get bored or whatever, you’d just go outside and pick up a horny toad and play with it.” Mayfield and his brother would compete to see who could catch more horny toads. Then they’d rub the toads’ bellies, putting them into a trance, and line them up on the ground as fast as they could, before the first ones came to. “My brother and I would spend the day hunting horny toads, because the horny toad man would pay us a nickel a piece for ’em,” he said. “It’s shameful today, but back then, for a kid a nickel goes a long way.”

The toads became a novelty nationwide. The most sought-after “items” at the 1950 National Scout Jamboree in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, were horned lizards brought by Texas Boy Scouts, who traded them to curious Yankees. In 1958 a zoology student at UT interviewed a pet dealer who said he had sold 50,000 fewer horned lizards that year than he had the previous year. “There just ain’t as many this year as there was last year,” the dealer told the student. By the time Texas officials enacted the 1967 protections, it was too late. “They were collected to death,” Brooks said.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department placed the Texas horned lizard on its threatened species list in 1977. A first-time violator—anyone who takes a horny toad from the wild or is caught killing one—faces fines of up to $500. Protection under Texas law slowed the sheer number of horned lizards captured and killed, but the critters were also facing an immense strain from habitat loss triggered by increasing development.

Horny toads do best in a mosaic-type habitat with lots of variation: shrubs to hide under and cool off from the sun, open areas to forage for ants. Real estate development not only destroyed habitats, it replaced native grasses with lawns that simply don’t support the same density of harvester ants or other insects. Nonnative grasses like St. Augustine and Bermuda are extremely dense and hard for horned lizards to navigate through. Paved roads created yet another danger. Horned lizards often fall victim to cars and trucks, and Texas has a lot more roads than it did half a century ago. Between 1935 and 2013, the number of highway miles in Texas ballooned from 35,000 to 79,000.

It doesn’t stop there: drought and even radiation from nuclear testing have been investigated as potential causes for the lizards’ decline. Not all the factors are easily reversible or easily detectable, making the task much harder than the conservation society originally envisioned. “I think we’re never going to determine that it was just one factor,” said Gluesenkamp, with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “It’s a bunch of things that are impacting horned lizard populations and a different sweep of factors in different areas.”

With horned lizards now so hard to locate in the wild, I decided to visit one of the few places in the United States where seeing a horned lizard is guaranteed: the Fort Worth Zoo. The zoo has had a Texas horned lizard inside its “Texas Wild!” exhibit since 2001, and it was the first institution to successfully breed and raise them in captivity. Today, the zoo has anywhere from thirty to fifty adult toads at one time, and it has hatched more than three hundred baby horned lizards. Most of the funding for horned lizard research in Texas comes from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s sale of specialty horned lizard license plates. Seventy percent of the sale of every plate ($22 of $30) goes toward a wildlife diversity fund, and in the next fiscal year, the fund will have $140,000 to disperse.

Some of the toads, along with hatchlings, are being reintroduced to the wild. Right now, the zoo is working directly with one landowner. In 2011 five captive-bred horned lizards outfitted with radio transmitters were released onto the property, located west of Fort Worth. The horny toads are an extraordinarily fecund species, capable of laying up to 45 eggs per female each spring, but they are vulnerable, particularly the hatchlings. Of the 27 released adults, 4 were found dead, likely killed by predators, and besides the initial 5 still being tracked, the others have not been located.

The zoo’s adult horned lizards are kept in large, mesh-covered wooden enclosures in front of the Texas Native Reptile Center, a building tucked away from the zoo’s main pathways. There are two outdoor enclosures of females and one of males. On the day I visited, the lizards had just been fed, and big harvester ants that had probably escaped were crawling down the edge of the wooden cage. It was August, on one of the hottest days of the year, and though the lizards were active, they would soon take shelter from the sun under the rocks, logs, and debris in the enclosure. Diane Barber, the zoo’s curator of ectotherms, led me inside the center, where the young horned lizards occupy the entire back half of the building. The lizards, arranged and separated by age from the smallest hatchlings to young adults, scurry about in their tanks, bathed in pale yellow UV light. When Texas horned lizards first hatch, they are so small they can fit inside the Lincoln Memorial design on a penny. It takes nearly two years to reach sexual maturity, and the next five are their prime reproductive years. (The zoo has had lizards as old as thirteen.) Individual horned lizards are color-coded with nail polish to tell them apart, marked with tiny dots in pink and blue and metallic green. As we watch them, one of the larger horned lizards quickly buries itself in the sand and gravel, leaving only its head exposed; it does this to hide itself, but in the wild, horned lizards do this when they hibernate.

Barber picked up two 1-year-olds, one at a time, and placed them in a plastic terrarium. They were relaxed and docile in her hand. The lizards were destined for the Phoenix Zoo, which is trying to jump-start its own breeding program. “Because of their specialized diets, because of their high UV-light requirements, many zoos have not done well with them in the past, and so they don’t try because it’s just a tough little species,” Barber said.

It’s far too early to know where horned lizards could begin to make a successful comeback. Researchers like Barber are still trying to figure out what a healthy habitat for horned lizards in the wild looks like. And reintroducing the lizards has at times proved difficult. For instance, beginning in 2001 the conservation society released some lizards into the wild with the goal of rebuilding viable populations. It failed. Thirty juveniles and seventeen adults were released on a property in Central Texas in the experiment. By 2003, only one adult lizard could be found; eventually they all were either killed or couldn’t be located. Horny toads, like many small lizards, are low on the food chain, and as Gluesenkamp, the state herpetologist, put it, one thing that makes reintroduction efforts so difficult is that “every dang thing eats them.”

The blood-spurting defense seems to be effective only against canine foes, like coyotes and foxes, and felines, like bobcats, which find the ejected fluid irritating and foul-tasting. But some canines are undeterred. Horned lizards also have to fend off feral and neighborhood cats, which often do a number on local populations. Another horned lizard defense is to run and then stop quickly to blend back into the soil, hoping that the predator’s eyes can’t follow; cats aren’t fazed by this tactic and can track exactly where the horned lizard has stopped. Horned lizards can inflate themselves with air to appear bigger—and, with all those spikes, harder to swallow—though it doesn’t always work. Dead snakes and roadrunners have been found with horned lizards stuck in their throats, fatally punctured by their horns.

The Fort Worth Zoo’s reintroduction program is still in its infancy, but so far the results have been encouraging. The Parks and Wildlife Department has its own program, a relocation effort transporting horned lizards from existing healthy populations to the Muse Wildlife Management Area, in Brownwood. The horned lizards have so far successfully established themselves there, laying eggs last spring. And Scott and Joan Holt, landowners in South Texas, have managed to increase the number of horned lizards on their property by clearing the land without disturbing the soil, allowing native grasses to return. The Holts’ techniques and the lessons learned through both the zoo and the Parks and Wildlife reintroduction programs could be used to improve horned lizard numbers around the state. “There’s plenty of land left in Texas where we could see horned lizards,” Gluesenkamp said, “so we can turn this tide around.”

Perhaps foreshadowing the decline that was to come, even Old Rip proved less durable once released from his stone encasement. As the story goes, eleven months after “awakening” from his lengthy slumber, Old Rip was left outside at night during a sudden cold snap and died of pneumonia the following morning. The embalmed body is now on display beneath a glass case in the lobby of the current courthouse in Eastland, in a miniature velvet-lined coffin like a tiny reptilian Vladimir Lenin. “He’s our most famous citizen,” said Cecil Funderburgh, a former police chief and the director of Eastland’s Chamber of Commerce. “He’s dead, but he’s still our most famous citizen.”

Like so many other horned lizards, the original Old Rip may too have disappeared. Rumors have circulated that the horned lizard on display in the Eastland courthouse isn’t the real Old Rip but instead an impostor, used to cover up a prank gone awry some decades ago. In 1973 thieves stole the casket and held Old Rip for ransom; they sent an anonymous letter to the local newspaper demanding $10,000, which was never paid. The official story is that the stolen lizard was recovered, but there is a persistent rumor that he was never actually found and Eastland turned to a replacement. Brooks told me the evidence of this impostor lies in its horns: Old Rip’s two main spikes were worn down, and that doesn’t appear to be the case with the current encased lizard. If it is a fake Old Rip, Eastland has done a pretty good job of covering it up. Former Texas governor John Connally visited Old Rip on a campaign trip to Eastland in the early sixties. While he was holding the famous horny toad by one leg, the leg detached from the rest of the body. Today, the lizard in the Eastland courthouse is missing a leg as well.

Impostor or not, the world-renowned citizen of Eastland has been celebrated with Ripfest every fall for the past 34 years. The festival is far more a celebration of Eastland County and small-town Texas life than a celebration of Old Rip or horned lizards, but it does draw hundreds from the community and surrounding towns. A parade, which runs through the center of town and features pageant winners in flowing prom dresses and tractors pulling floats with the local football teams, kicks off the festival in the morning and is one of its main attractions. Churches, rifle clubs, and the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans all host booths in Old Rip Plaza, selling merchandise and baked goods and crafts. Food stands advertise “Tornado Taters” and corn dogs.

Ripfest is also the Horned Lizard Conservation Society’s biggest event of the year. Brooks has been manning a booth at the festival off and on for the past ten years, selling horned lizard iconography, art, and memorabilia to fund the organization. “We’re home to all things horny toad,” he tells passing festival attendees. This year, Brooks is joined by Bette and Jim Armstrong, two conservation society members formerly of Eastland who made many of the crafts at the booth, like copper horned lizard cookie cutters and horned lizard greeting cards. Bette wears a plush horned lizard–shaped hat. Wave after wave of silver-haired Texans stop by the booth with the same question: Where did all the horny toads go? They talk about the last time they saw one. Some younger couples have their children with them, and the kids often have no idea what a horned lizard is—or they have only seen one in pictures. “I killed one on accident,” a young boy sheepishly admits to Brooks after he realizes what a horned lizard is. “I’m sorry to hear that,” Brooks responds, unsure of what else to tell him.

Brooks has heard plenty of horror stories throughout the past quarter century as concerned Texans try to clear their guilty consciences, looking to him for forgiveness. Some tell him they used the toads as air rifle target practice or ran them over with their bicycles or blew them up with firecrackers. Guilt is pervasive among older Texans for their crimes against horned lizards; they unintentionally helped devastate a species that their state has long cherished. In that sense, the effort to save the horned lizards isn’t really an environmental one: No ecosystems will likely collapse without the horny toads. They don’t serve any critical purpose. Many other species have declined or disappeared in recent decades and none of them can claim their own conservation society. Saving the horny toad is more about sentiment. As Gad Perry, a conservation biologist at Texas Tech University, put it: “If the American eagle disappeared, would the U.S. economy suffer? Probably not. But would people in the U.S. feel that something important has been lost? Definitely. The horned lizard is in this category. Knowing that it exists is important to people, especially in Texas.” Sentiment and nostalgia can be powerful motivators, and they have prompted many people to support real efforts to restore horned lizard populations. But Brooks isn’t so optimistic.

He never married or had any children. The Horned Lizard Conservation Society is, in many ways, his baby, and he is worried about its future. Through the organization’s field surveys, Brooks gets to see horned lizards four or five times a year. But for the average Texan, and particularly children, Phrynosoma cornutum might as well be a unicorn, a myth. And despite Brooks’s best efforts, it might stay that way.

At Ripfest, a woman stops by Brooks’s booth and asks a sobering question. “Are they coming back at all?”

“I’d be out on the thinnest of limbs if I said they were,” he tells her.

The Texas horned lizard won’t go extinct tomorrow. Brooks knows that. His fight is to protect the lizards that are left. But more than that, he is struggling to keep alive a piece of Texas identity.

 

 

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