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Story & Art by Jim Harris

Just about any place except Texas—and sometimes even here—when you mention the Horned Toad, some self-appointed Guardian of the English Language will spring out of the bushes to correct you. "You mean Horned lizard!" (s)he proclaims with all the fervor of the truly righteous. "It isn’t really a Toad." So, before this article goes any further, let me explain that I know perfectly well that Horned Toads aren’t really toads. I also know that sea horses aren’t really horses, guinea pigs aren’t really pigs, hot dogs aren’t really... well, maybe that one’s questionable. But you get the point—they may be Horned lizards in the zoology books, but in plain Texas English the critters are Horned Toads.

There are several (ten to sixteen, depending on which reference is consulted) species of Horned Toad, ranging from Canada to Guatemala. Three of these are native to the Lone Star State: the short horned, the round-tailed, and, of course, the Texas. The short-horned type is fairly rare in Texas, only occurring in small pockets of the westernmost areas, while the round-tailed is found primarily in the Trans-Pecos and Panhandle regions. The Texas Horned Toad lives throughout Texas (makes perfect sense). The Texas variety is the "original" Horned Toad; it was the first to be scientifically documented. It also has the longest horns of the family, which is appropriate—Texas Longhorns, you know—but it’s not the biggest species. The regal Horned Toad of Arizona claims this honor, sometimes reaching seven inches in length while the Texas rarely exceeds five. Most others are much smaller, ranging between two and four inches. As a boy I used to classify the two common types in my neighborhood—the round-tailed and the Texas—simply as The Little Kind and The Big Kind, respectively.

Unfortunately, Horned Toads are much more rare today than they were a few decades ago. My childhood hikes through the west Texas deserts invariably turned up a Horned Toad or two; I rarely see any now. Over-collecting and habitat loss are partly to blame for this, but the widespread use of agricultural pesticides is likely to be the most serious of the Horned toad’s problems (this is probably a good time to mention that all species of Horned Toad are now protected by law, and shouldn’t be captured or otherwise molested. I kept them as pets throughout my youth, but I was also willing and able to supply them with immense quantities of live ants. Most people aren’t and the animals will usually die without them.).

Horned Toads are completely harmless (to anything bigger than an ant, at least). Their dagger-like spines may look vicious, but can’t do any damage to a human. They might possibly try to bite, but even if they do, their jaws are relatively weak and they don’t have any teeth. And, despite a disturbingly common misconception, they are definitely not poisonous in any way.

All the different types of Horned Toad look pretty much alike. It’s not always easy to identify the species of a particular Horned Toad, but the fact that it is a Horned Toad would be obvious even without the horns. No other lizard native to this continent has the flat oval body, short tail, and fringe of pointed scales along its sides. Coloration can vary from nearly white to nearly black, but tends to be in subtle, earthy tones. Unlike some of the gaudier lizards which show themselves off with flashy colors, the Horned Toad’s complexion is designed for camouflage. Although it can run reasonably fast (for an animal with a physique like the top half of a hamburger bun), it prefers to avoid trouble by hiding. Remaining still and flattening itself out (even more than usual), makes the little lizard seem to disappear into the ground. In loose sand, the performance becomes more than illusion—the Horned Toad can completely bury itself in less time than it takes to tell about it.

As mentioned earlier, Horned Toads are particularly fond of ants—in fact, when given the option, that’s all they eat. Other prey such as beetles and grasshoppers are only taken when ants are unavailable. They generally swallow the ants whole—with jaws and/or stingers intact and presumably in perfect working order—and it doesn’t seem to bother them the least little bit. However, whatever protects a Horned Toad’s inside is woefully lacking on its outside. These lizards will take up a position near an anthill and do their level best to depopulate it—until one of the inhabitants manages to sneak up behind its enemy and launch a counterattack. The Horned Toad’s reaction is one of obvious pain.

The most celebrated Horned Toad in the history of Texas (or anywhere else, I would imagine) was an individual known as "Old Rip". I’m neither gullible enough to say his story is true nor cynical enough to say it isn’t—my only comment will have to be that this is the way I heard it...

In 1897, a Justice of the Peace named Ernest Wood was dedicating the cornerstone of the new Eastland County courthouse. Along with the usual items sealed in cornerstones in those days—a Bible, a newspaper, a few timely photographs—Judge Wood added a large Horned Toad that his son had been playing with (the man’s motives for doing this are somewhat unclear to me, but I have to assume he thought it would be funny. Even keeping in mind that this was long before most people grasped the concepts of endangered species and animal rights, I still don’t think it was funny.).

Flash forward to 1928. The old courthouse is being demolished to make way for a bigger and better one, and all the local dignitaries are on hand for the opening of the cornerstone. Old Rip’s supposedly mummified carcass is removed with the rest of the memorabilia. There, in the bright Texas sunshine and in full view of a large crowd, including city officials and members of the clergy, the Horned Toad awoke from his thirty-one years of suspended animation.

The following year, after being exhibited throughout the country and having a private audience with President Coolidge, Old Rip passed away. His body was embalmed and put on display in the new courthouse, where he lies in state like King Tut in his golden sarcophagus. There have since been other tales of other Horned Toads in similar situations, but none were ever revived in front of such an august body of witnesses. Even so, most men of science take the story of Old Rip’s resurrection with a grain of salt.

Another bone on contention among naturalists for many years was whether or not Horned Toads can shoot blood from their eyes. Until the act was actually captured on film, many learned people flatly reused to believe it. I had my own doubts for a long time; I’ve handled Horned Toads by the hundred since I was a small child, and I’ve seen the blood-squirting trick done exactly once—when I was a college student. I was on my way to a dance on campus and was taking a short cut through a parking lot when I spied a particularly large Horned Toad crossing the asphalt. Never one to put my social life ahead of my reptile collection (friends called my dorm room "a zoo" for more reasons than one), I took the time to capture this magnificent specimen. While I was admiring my prize he expressed his annoyance by ejecting a double stream of crimson fluid all over the front of my new white cowboy shirt.

To reiterate, that was my one and only firsthand experience with the phenomenon, although others seem to witness it on a regular basis. Some people, apparently, need only take a walk through the countryside and every Horned Toad within a mile will seek them out and squirt blood on them. I guess I just don’t have that gift.

I have to confess that the logic behind the process escapes me, anyway. One would assume that the ability to squirt blood from the eyes is supposed to be used for self-defense; I’ve even read that this will "repel predators". But is a predator with the intention of killing and eating something going to be adverse to the sight of its victim’s blood? That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it? Perhaps the key to the success of the maneuver is the element of surprise—I’ll admit it certainly surprised me.