Texas horned lizards, or the more familiar “horned toads,” hold a special interest for many outdoor enthusiasts. They often feature fondly in childhood memories, spark a curiosity about the natural world, and can bring excited smiles when encountered. But these tank-like animals aren’t stumbled upon as frequently as they have been in the past. We checked in with biologists Mark Howery and Cheyenne Gonzales to answer a few of the Wildlife Department’s most frequently asked lizard questions and learn how to best help these well-loved reptiles. Historically, Texas horned lizards were found across about 80% of Oklahoma’s counties, foraging in native grasslands for ants and other insects during their active season and burrowing underground to avoid extreme temperatures. But the lizards have become increasingly scarce as more and more of their habitat has been converted to crop fields and non-native pastures.
“Texas horned lizards are undoubtedly experiencing declines,” said Mark Howery, senior biologist with the Wildlife Department’s Wildlife Diversity Program. “But they continue to be locally common and widespread in the western one-third of the state.
“And while we’ve seen the most substantial declines in the central and eastern parts of their range, one of the fascinating things about the reports we receive from the public is that the lizards continue to persist in pockets, especially in central Oklahoma.”
This persistence is likely due to corresponding pockets of quality lizard habitat. “Texas horned lizards need somewhat loose soils, with relatively open vegetation and exposed ground to thrive,” said Cheyenne Gonzales, another biologist with the Wildlife Diversity Program. “They’re sit-and-wait predators, relying on their camouflage to avoid being spotted by predators and waiting for ants next to their open trails.”
Contrary to popular belief, the Texas horned lizard isn’t a “listed” species but is afforded some protections by state law.
“These lizards are neither threatened or endangered at the state or federal level,” Gonzales said. “Instead, they’re considered a species of greatest conservation need and have a closed season in Oklahoma.”
The closed season has protected Texas horned lizards from direct take – capture, possession, or harvest – since 1992, and while the protection doesn’t extend to the lizard’s habitat, it does make it illegal to keep one as a pet.
“A majority of the lizard’s diet is ants and other insects,” Gonzales said. “Even if it were legal to have a Texas horned lizard, it would be difficult to supplement its diet and keep it alive.”
Part of the Texas horned lizard’s scientific name, “Phrynosoma,” translates to “toad body.” Despite the popular common name of “horned toad,” these animals are technically lizards. Both lizards and toads feed primarily on insects, but only the reptilian lizards have scales on their bodies, claws on their feet, and most have external ear openings. Toads and other amphibians have moist skin, which is usually smooth, lack claws, and do not have external ear openings.
“Texas horned lizards are more adapted to drier environments than most reptiles and amphibians, but they likely have higher water requirements than we think,” Howery said. “In fact, these lizards can funnel rain and dew down channels of scales on their back toward their mouths to drink or ‘harvest’ that moisture.”