I would like to apologize in advance to my reptile and amphibian blogees. It seems that most of the animals I pick in this category are those that are mainly interesting because of something horribly disgusting they do. The first one being the Surinam toad, which made my skin tingle with ickiness just writing about it. Today I am going to write about the Texas horned lizard, who I think rivals the Surinam toad for grossness. Next time I choose a reptile or amphibian I’ll pick a nice, pretty one, I swear. But for today we’ll stick with pretty awesome but also pretty disgusting.
The Texas horned lizard lives in the southern United States, in warm, dry habitats. It spends its nights in burrows to keep warm, and in the mornings the lizard basks in the sun to warm up for the day. It feeds mostly on harvester ants, which is a bit of a problem these days for the horned lizard. A combination of chemical pesticides and the introduction of the red imported fire ant have reduced the harvester ant population, leading to a decline in the horned lizard.
Animals have amazing way of adapting to their habitats, and this lizard is no exception. What the lizard does to make life easier in its dry habitat is an activity known as ‘rain harvesting’. When it rains, the lizard stands high on its legs and flattens its back, trying to create as much surface area as possible for the rain to fall onto. It then lowers its head so that the collected water flows through special channels between the animal’s scales and into its mouth.
As the name might suggest, the Texas horned lizard is covered with horns and spines. It basically looks like… ok I’ll be honest and tell you I looked at a picture of this animal for a good minute trying to figure out what it looked like, and the best I could come up with was it kind of looks like the top of a lemon meringue pie. You know, with all those little peaks on the meringue that kinda sorta look like those on the back of the lizard. In any case, here’s a picture, you can judge for yourself and let me know any better comparisons that you come up with.
Due to those large spines, the Texas horned lizard isn’t normally preyed upon. When a predator does come too close, the lizard puffs itself up to make its spikes stick out more. If the predator is more persistent, the lizard has another, more gruesome defence. When it feels sufficiently threatened, the Texas horned lizard squirts blood from a pore near its eye towards its predators. Blood. From its eye. The blood contains a foul tasting chemical that deters even the hardiest of hunters. This 7 cm lizard can squirt blood up to 5 feet. That’s a pretty long distance to shoot a stream of blood, which I must emphasize again, is coming from the animal’s eye. The horned lizard can lose up to one third of its blood in this way with no ill effects.
Since it has such strong natural defences, the horned lizard is a very docile animal. When picked up by a human, they will simply play dead, going completely limp in a person’s hand. Because of this, Texas horned lizards were very popular pets, until they became threatened. Now they are a protected species, and one must obtain a permit in order own one. I for one would not want to have a horned lizard. The thought that one day my cute little pet could spray me with a third of its blood is just creepy. But I can’t deny that the horned lizard has evolved a fascinating method of defence, so kudos to it for that. Anyway, that’s all for today, and I promise the next reptile or amphibian will not be disgusting. I promise.
Cover image by Patrick Alexander from Las Cruces, NM, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons