The horny toad is the best New Mexico toad, I assumed. Then in one quick Google search, I was corrected. The horny toad is not a toad at all.
They’re lizards, very toady looking lizards. The horny toad, or horned lizard, also isn’t one kind of lizard, but a genus of lizards.
Horny toads seem magical, with their spikes and flattened face. Their fat bodies are hard to spot on the desert floor, camouflaged expertly in speckles of brown and tan.
When I was a kid, there was one evening when we returned home to find a horny toad hanging out on the front porch. I also had run-ins with them in the desert, by my grandparents’ church and near a basketball court. There was something about the horns protruding from their little bodies that captured my imagination.
They primarily eat ants, using their sticky tongues to capture them – behavior that could be characterized as very lizard-like or very frog-like. They’re patient creatures who do not hunt or chase prey but wait for ants to approach them.
They’re also iconic. Restaurants across the southwest bear their name and depict their solemn faces in logos and on menus, and they are the official state reptile for Texas and Wyoming. The Texas horned lizard is the most widely distributed of the 15 American species, so perhaps Texas gets first dibs to claiming it a state reptile. The horned toad is also a figure in legends.
A National Park Service guide sheet lists the short-horned lizard’s enemies as “coyotes, hawks, snakes, and people.”
The lizards numbers have dwindled enough for Texas to consider the lizard threatened and Oklahoma to consider them a species of special concern. Some 2019 reporting on lizard research attributes the population decline in Texas to invasive fire ants that interfere with the ant populations the horny toads eat–big red ants–and that attack the lizards’ nests. Population decline is also attributed to one of their enemies: people.
Habitat destruction, laying cement to build cities, spraying pesticides that kill the ants they eat, and keeping the lizards as pets are considered contributing causes for the decline in horny toad numbers.
According to KRQE reporting earlier this year, the ABQ-BioPark just wrapped a project to raise lizards in captivity that could be used to reintroduce populations to the wild. Earlier this month, Texas Monthly reported on a San Antonio Zoo project to introduce zoo-hatched lizards in the wild in an effort to boost their dwindling numbers.
With efforts like that, perhaps people won’t have to stay on the list of the horny toad’s enemies.