Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Coast Horned Lizard

When I was four, my family moved into a new house in the Avenues of Salt Lake City, on the edge of City Creek Canyon. The foundation for a new home was being excavated a short distance from ours and my friend, Mark Molen, and I were playing at the site. We discovered an amazing creature that I was sure was a baby dinosaur (an ankylosaurus). It had spikes all over its back.
We caught it and excitedly showed my mother our amazing discovery. She shared our excitement and said nothing to persuade us that it was not a prehistoric creature. Soon we were playing in the sandbox in my backyard and placed the baby dinosaur on the teeter-totter. When we finished playing, I was devastated to find that the baby dinosaur was gone! This was my first encounter with a horned lizard, or as I came to know them later growing up, a horny toad.
Horny toads get their name from their rounded shape and blunt head, a shape much like a toad. The scientific name, phrynosoma, means toad body (phrynos means toad and soma means body), although it is actually a lizard, not a toad. Until yesterday, I'd never heard the term "horny frog," or "horned frog" in relation to a horned lizard. However, I learned that the horned frog, the mascot of Texas Christian University, is a reference to the Texas horned lizard. Below is a sculpture of the mascot on the TCU campus:

On a recent backpacking trip along the PCT in the San Felipe Hills, we came across a large horned lizard. It ran a short distance and then stopped, motionless. It did not move while we took pictures, quite close up. They blend into their background in an amazing way. This is one of their defense mechanisms.

Within a short distance, perhaps 100 yards, we saw another two horned lizards under the same tree. One was gray, like the first one, above. However, the other was a beautiful brown and orange. I thought it was a completely different sub-species. Note that, it too, blended perfectly with its background.

When I got home and looked at my pictures and a guidebook, I was quite shocked to find they were the same species, the coast horned lizard. I learned that they can change colors to blend in with their background, like a chamelion, but I found nothing that indicated how quickly this can happen, or how much the color pattern can vary in a short time. In about another quarter mile, I found another brownish horned lizard, with less orange. It also blended into its surroundings very well.

I particularly liked the brownish orange horned lizard we saw. Even the horns on its head had color variation, some orange, some black and some brown.

A closeup of the head of the first, gray horned lizard, reveals that its horns are primarily gray, but it, too, had some partially black horns.

Since my youth, when I found lots of "horny toads" in the hills near my home, I've only seen them a few times, and then, only in remote locations. It has seemed to me that they must be in decline. One was found along the PCT near Deep Creek, between Lake Arrowhead and Mojave River Forks Dam.

On two separate occasions, I've seen them along the PCT in the Mission Creek area, between Mission Creek Canyon and Whitewater Canyon, near Fork Springs. Note, again, the amazing blending of the horned lizard with its background.

It was there they I encountered one of the other horned lizard defense mechanisms: they can shoot blood from the corner of their eyes. I was trying to catch the horned lizard when the liquid shot out. At the time I was startled, not quite sure what I'd seen. It missed me and I did not realize it was blood. Again, it was later, in reading a guidebook that I discovered this as a defense mechanism.
The young horned lizards are very cute and even easier to catch than the adults. The picture of the young horned lizard below, was also taken near Mission Creek.

I captured several of the horned lizards in Mission Creek years ago, and kept them for awhile as pets. However, it is hard to keep them alive and healthy as their primary diet consists of harvester ants, although they also eat spiders, grasshoppers, butterflies and other insects. Now I am content to watch them in their natural surroundings and hope that there will be more horned lizards in the future to enjoy.


  1. The best part of this post: "Now I am content to watch them in their natural surroundings . . ."

  2. You will no doubt enjoy this clip of a peculiar talent they have... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEl6TXrkZnk

  3. ... as you mentioned experiencing. I have caught a few of them but have never seen one do this.

  4. Chris, thanks, that was great footage of the horned lizard squirting blood, as well as eating ants.