by Whit Gibbons

October 19, 2014

My 11-year-old grandson Parker called me from a coastal island with exciting news. Problem was that I took the call outside a restaurant with people jabbering and at a spot where I had a sketchy cell phone connection. All I heard was “blood,” “horns,” and “caught it.”

A Garth Brooks song had just finished playing inside so I mused on the possibility that Parker was calling during a visit to a rodeo.

After yelling “I can’t hear you” and “can you hear me?” enough times that people entering and exiting were giving me looks of mild annoyance and shaking their heads, I hung up, found a better location, and called him back.

“I caught an adult horned toad and he sprayed blood on me through his eyes, just like they are supposed to,” Parker said when I could hear better.

Then it all made sense. My son and grandson were on Isle of Palms, a barrier island off the South Carolina coast near Charleston. The island is noted for being one of the locations where Texas horned lizards, which are also called horned toads or horned frogs, have been introduced and now thrive.

According to the book “Lizards and Crocodilians of the Southeast,” the species has become established in at least three southeastern states outside their natural range from Kansas through Texas and into Mexico.

Presumably horned lizards in the Southeast were brought from other states by pet owners and released in areas that were similar to their native habitat of plentiful sun and sand.

Enough of them took a liking to the coastal dunes and sandy terrain of barrier islands to begin reproducing and increasing their population sizes in localized areas.

Introduced populations have been reported from some localities in Alabama (including Tuscaloosa), several places in Louisiana, and parts of Georgia, but it is doubtful any of these have survived. However, in addition to Isle of Palms, breeding populations are known to occur on Edisto Island; Jacksonville and Santa Rosa Island, Florida; and in Onslow County, North Carolina, north of Wilmington.

A horned lizard looks like a flat armored tank with small jutting protuberances on the back and a crown of large, formidable looking bony spines on the back of the head.

No doubt the head spines deter predation by certain snakes, birds, and small mammals. But their true claim to fame in predatory defense is that when they are approached by a dog, coyote, or fox they squirt blood from their eyes.

Occasionally, as in my grandson’s case, humans may also get to experience the phenomenon. Maybe he barked before he made his capture. Texas horned lizards have short tails and get about 4 inches long.

Although they look prehistoric and somewhat dangerous, they are completely harmless to humans. The primary prey of horned lizards are ants and other small insects.

Touches of irony often accompany tales of introduced animals in a region. For one thing, whereas fire ants, privet and kudzu are not native anywhere in the United States and are despised by most people, other introduced species, including honeybees and camellias, are well loved.

Texas horned lizards are U.S. natives that have been introduced to the southeastern states where they do not really belong. But they are delightful little beasts that cause no harm I know of to any of our native species. If they choose to dine on fire ants I am all in favor of that.

Unfortunately, the Texas horned lizard, which was designated the Texas state reptile in 1993, no longer occurs at many locations in the Lone Star state where it was once common. However, they have a wide geographic range and are still common in parts of their western range as well as a few places in the Southeast.

These are very cool animals, so let’s hope they can remain in the places they now live, including Isle of Palms, so I can receive more phone calls of captures but with better phone reception.

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