Here's Blood In Your Eye! (Or is it My Eye?)
Updated: Jan 24, 2020
Have you ever heard “Don’t Mess with Texas”? Years and years ago, when we visited my cousin in League City, I thought it was pretty arrogant - until my cousin said it was an anti-littering campaign. So then I thought it was extremely clever and I loved Texas, even if we couldn’t find the Alamo.
There’s a tiny lizard named the Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum) that reminds me of the “Don’t Mess With Texas” motto. They don’t grow longer than eight-inches, but they have a tough exterior, lots of defenses, and are a bit prickly. They have numerous horns throughout their body with two centralized ones on the head and two rows of fringe scales running horizontally on each side (pointy scales). Their colors can vary slightly depending on their location but they have a beautiful pattern. They are one of 22 species of horned lizards, with 15 being found in the United States.
This is the horned lizard's life!
They prefer desert to semi-arid environments in open areas where there aren’t many plants. They dig themselves in the sand for shelter, insulation to keep warm with, nesting and hibernation. Even though it says “Texas” in its name, they’ve moved out a bit. They can be found throughout Texas (including the barrier islands) and Oklahoma, and in parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas, Colorado, Louisiana, and Missouri. In Mexico, they are found in the following states: Sonora, Chihuahua, Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí and Tamaulipas.
They have a cute little tank-like body that they can flatten like a coin. This helps them thermoregulate by collecting heat and as a defense using camouflage. Though they’ve been seen at around eight-inches long, they generally only get to a little bit over four inches long. Horned lizards are specialist feeders...meaning that they only eat one thing a majority of the time. And, you would think, logically perhaps, that this one item would have to be extraordinary nutritious considering that they live in such a hostile habitat, right? Um, well, how nutritious do harvester ants sound? Because they make up between 70% - 90% of the horned lizard’s diet. And they don’t even get to eat the choicest ants. Harvester ants keep the young ants full of protein toward the bottom of the nest where they spend their time cleaning, caring for young, courtesying their queen, etc. As they grow older and lose their good looks and protein, they get kicked up the ladder of opportunity. Finally, they are assigned to do all the work at the surface. They’re considered dispensable at that point with less protein and body moisture and more chitin and exoskeleton that is difficult to digest. The once plump and beautiful group of worker ants now pass through the entrance of their home with resignation as they prepare to attack that awful horned thing and sacrifice their lives for the greater good of their ant sisters and queen.
The self-named Vlad (he likes to think he’s an impaler), the horned lizard, gleefully watches as the hoards of ants go on the attack. He’s got a sticky tongue to grab them, and he doesn’t have a problem with them running around on him. Their stings and bites don’t affect the lizard in the least. It’s nice to be able to grab them when they get too close to his mouth. It’s very handy since he doesn’t really have a lot of energy... Wonder if it’s his diet?
To live on an ant diet, they have to eat hundreds of them. To accommodate their rather large appetite, their stomachs are twice as big as other lizards of comparable size. It goes without saying that having less energy and dragging around a huge gut does not help when Vlad wiggles out of the sand on a fine beautiful morning to see a dog staring at him.
So what defenses does a little horned lizard have when they are threatened by something like Oliver? Vlad has several things he can do. He can freeze and not move a muscle. He could take a chance and raise a tail or leg up in the air, giving Oliver something to grab - and most likely tossing because Vlad is the legendary ”Vlad the Impaler” only in Vlad’s own mind and the nightmares of harvester ants everywhere. In reality, he’s just a very tiny lizard - all Oliver would need to do is gently shake his head a little for Vlad to fly. He could also take off and then suddenly stop, confusing Oliver. He could whip around and confront Olivier, startling the little chihuahua. He can flatten himself out with his serrated fringe scales sticking out so it’s hard for Oliver to pick him up, and for the same reason, Vlad can inflate himself up to twice his normal size. With a mylar Vlad horned lizard fully inflated, his spikes and spines can cause possibly lethal damage with gory wounds in the mouth of Oliver if he attempted to pick Vlad up.
If all else fails, then Oliver is going to get it. Vlad saved the best (but most taxing) for last. They have one amazingly cool - and disgusting at the same time - defense that will cause Oliver to run away posthaste with his tail between his legs. Vlad - and all Texas horned lizards - have two constricting muscles that line the major veins around their eyes. When they contract the muscles, it cuts the blood flow from the head back down to the heart while blood flow from the heart up into the head continues where it begins to pool in the ocular sinuses, causing pressure (which can be seen bulging around the eye). Vlad aims, and contracts the muscles again, causing the sinus membrane to rupture and a stream of blood to shoot out of the conjunctiva. The blood shoots out for about four to six feet and Vlad can repeat it by contracting the muscles ten more times. As if it isn’t insulting enough for Vlad to have blood shot at him, but whoah, it tastes nasty! As Oliver is desperately trying to get the taste out of his mouth, Vlad has a big smile, quietly thanking his ancestors for putting that chemical in his blood to cause Oliver to react in much the same way that he did when he found out what neutering was. Vlad skips away.
Or does he have just enough energy to escape? Texas horned lizards, according to studies, can discern whether giving the ick eye defense will work on a particular predator. It appears to work on canids (dogs, wolves, foxes, coyotes) and felids (small-medium cats). But I could not find the effect that shooting blood out of their eye has on them. I did read that it was between ¼ and ⅓ of their volume and that’s a massive amount. Enough for dehydration (while living in the desert) but what else? I emailed Bekky Muscher-Hodges, Manager at Center for Conservation at San Antonio Zoo, and she couldn’t find any information but mentioned that dehydration would be a problem. I emailed Fort Worth Zoo, to see if they could help as they have successfully hatched out 600 Texas horned lizards and released them into the wild.
Speaking of hydration or lack thereof, since ants don’t hold much moisture and deserts aren’t known for lakefront property, how do they get water? In a process called “rain harvesting,” water is wicked between scales. At the bottom is a maze that channels water to either side of the mouth. To help the water grapple gravity, they stick their hindquarters into the air. The more water they drink, the more the capillary system pulls more water forward. Thankfully, they’re so small that dew can replenish them.
Every year in October, Texas horned lizards dig themselves in for a four to five-month-long hibernation. When they emerge in March, love is immediately in the air. Males immediately go on long treks looking for females. When they come across a female, they begin the traumatic “trying to impress” part of courtship by bobbing their heads up and down. After all that, all the female just has to reject him by walking away. By June, possibly July, the mating season has ended and everyone goes back to their solitary ways with the males losing all interest in the females. And the females are more interested in registering at Target...until they remember that they bail on their eggs. For 44 days, the females incubate them inside their bodies. Toward the end, she will dig a nest six to eight inches deep and lets loose anywhere between 13 to over 40 eggs. They break out 40-61 days later, fully formed and very, very, very, small. Like many reptiles, the egg does not contain any sex chromosomes, instead, sex is determined by the temperature they are incubated at. This will become a problem if there aren’t gradients. All eggs hatched will be just one sex year after year. It has already been discussed with sea turtles. (Photo: Two little babies.)
Sadly, these once numerous characters are now rare. A few possibilities for this are habitat destruction, pesticides used to kill fire ants that are more efficient at killing harvester ants than they are fire ants, and fire ants attacking horned lizard eggs and hatchlings. Since they are specialist eaters, if there is a decline in ant populations, there is a decline in horned lizards. They have also been collected for the pet trade, but they are especially difficult to keep. They can't be fed another insect instead of the ants, they need live harvester ants. Fort Worth Zoo is one of the only zoos with a breeding and conservation program. At least 600 Texas horned lizards have been hatched and released.
Baby Texas horned lizards being released
I think there’s a fighting chance because the state of Texas is very proud of their little prickles. The Texas horned lizard is the state reptile, they are popularly found in art and Native American folklore. It is apparently the mascot for Texas Christian University because I’m assuming that is what a “horned frog” is. Nowhere is it seen more than in the legend of “Ol’ RIP.” I have not read any account without a Texan saying that this tale is not tall at all. And yes, it does make me want to go to Eastland, TX to see Ol’ RIP’s taxidermied little body in his custom made coffin of velvet. Here’s the story that I shamelessly took word for word from here Read it and see for yourself!
“The (Unauthorized) Biography of "Ol' Rip", The Entombed Horned Toad of Eastland County or Where Was PETA When We Really Needed Them?
by Brewster Hudspeth
Ol' Rip didn't want his fifteen minutes of fame. It was thrust upon him. He was Young Rip when he crossed paths with E. E. Wood, electrician and part-time cornet player with the Eastland Municipal Band. He was Ripley to his mother who had sent him to the store for a box of red ants.
Mr. Wood was on his way to the laying of the cornerstone for the new Eastland County Courthouse. The year was 1897 and people were starved for entertainment. So much so, that horned toads were regarded as pets. Even if they never brought the paper in or rolled over, people would watch their little wart-covered bodies sit immobile for hours. This was before Television, this was before Radio. Hell, if Edison hadn't invented the electric light, Mr. Woods wouldn't have been an electrician. Anyway, on the way to the festivities, Ripley scurried in front of Mr. Woods and changed his life forever. E. E. grabbed the unfortunate creature and put him in his pocket planning to present him to his sons at the end of the day.
Mr. Woods arrived at the site just in time to see the town fathers place various articles into the cornerstone/time capsule. Everyday items to be sure, but things that loomed large in the everyday lives of Eastland citizens. A few coins, a Bible, a newspaper and a bottle of whiskey had already been placed inside when the Mayor asked if anyone had anything else to contribute. Ripley chose that moment to scratch his little pointed head and Mr. Woods suddenly remembered he had something to offer. Everyone laughed when Ripley was lowered by his tail into his new home, for these were fun-loving people who would've put someone's car keys in there if cars had been invented. The cornerstone was sealed and Rip's mother and siblings starved for want of the ants Rip was to bring home.
Even in 1897 they didn't build things "like they used to" and 31 years later the courthouse needed to be replaced. When news of the demolition was announced in the paper, a now remorseful Mr. Woods reminded everyone that a horned toad had been placed in the cornerstone. This would be an opportunity to see if the Indian legend of the toad's longevity was true. Word spread and a crowd of 4,000 people showed up. Most of them left when they discovered it wasn't a hanging, but enough were there to witness Rip's resurrection. His seemingly lifeless body twitched and he seemed to inflate himself as he breathed the fresh air. Eastlanders went wild. Westlanders went wild. The bottle of 31-year-old whiskey disappeared. Rip went on tour. He went to Washington D.C. and sat on the President's desk (This was Calvin Coolidge, a man only slightly more talkative than Rip), he went to St. Louis, he made public service announcements and endorsed tennis shoes. Robert Ripley (no relation) featured him in his "Believe It Or Not" column and newsreels showed Rip's face on movie screens across the land. Warts and all.
It's too late to make a long story short, so I'll leave out his kidnapping. Rip spent what were to be the last months of his life in Mr. Woods front window in a goldfish bowl sunning himself or burrowing in the sand. Rip had literally found his place in the sun. Neighborhood children caught red ants by the bushel for Rip. But in February a Norther blew in and the temperature dropped. While the Woods slept under quilts, Rip froze in the unheated front room. Eastland County wept. The Nation mourned. A casket company provided a glass case, a monument company a marble base, and a taxidermist performed the sad task for free. Like Lenin, Stalin and Ho Chi Minh, Rip was put on public display. (It was never proven that Rip was, or ever had been a party member). Eastland's favorite toad, the reptile that brought fame to an otherwise sleepy town can be viewed to this very day in the Eastland County Courthouse. (Northside.)
© John Troesser”
Remember, “Don’t Mess With Texas…...horned lizards!"
More pictures of these charming little creatures!!