An appreciation: Long live the Texas horny toad

A Texas horned lizard basks in the sun at Franklin Mountains State Park in El Paso. Photo by Pam LeBlanc.

A Texas horned lizard basks in the sun at Franklin Mountains State Park in El Paso. Photo by Pam LeBlanc.

By Dave Thomas

Rare, almost anachronistic, the short-legged, stout creature will puff up when agitated and give you one hell of a glare when truly annoyed. It looks rough as a bucket of rusty nails, but is secretly one of the calmest critters around.

Wait, was I talking about the horny toad or myself? If it’s hard to tell, it’s easy to know why I love the disappearing saurians.

The state reptile of Texas is officially called the Texas Horned Lizard (or phrynosoma cornutum if you are feeling it). But there’s no reason — save for a little puritanical hand-wringing — not to call it a horny toad.

Longhorns are mighty symbols of our cowboy past, and armadillos are snuffling, shuffling Texan mini-tanks, but there’s something special about the horny toad. Click here to read an excellent and lengthy treatise by Texas Monthly — Our Toad to Ruin.

But if you want the short version, here are 3 things you should know about the horny toad.

A Texas horned lizard, hanging out with some harvester ants.

A Texas horned lizard, hanging out with some harvester ants.

They are disappearing fast — and might not come back

In the 1950s, horny toads were common across Texas, and Texans were shipping them off as fast as they could — from boys looking to make a nickel, to pet store owners looking to make a buck, they were plucked from the ground by the hundreds of thousands and sent nationwide, dead or alive.

Combine that with the steady march of development and the invasion of the fire ants — which were deadly to both the horny toad and its main food source, the harvester ant — and the reptiles were dropping off rapidly by the end of 1960s. The Legislature passed a law in 1967 protecting the critters, but it was too late.

Today, the horny toad is a threatened species and is rarely seen.

They squirt blood from their eyes

I did mention that their first defense against predators is to puff themselves up like a bristly balloon. But if that doesn’t work, an aggravated horny toad can send a stream of blood from the corner of its eye up to five feet away. Understandably, this freaks out some predators, while it is said to be foul-tasting to canine attackers.

One particularly famous horny toad inspired an animated icon

It was 1897 when an unlucky horny toad was sealed up in a cornerstone/time capsule during construction of the courthouse in Eastland.

More than 3 decades later, when the courthouse was demolished, the critter was said to have been found alive, a little worse for wear, but alive. Promptly named Old Rip, it was an instant celebrity (sort of like the Kardashian of its day) and went on a nationwide tour, including a stop at the White House where he met President Coolidge.

Unfortunately, for Old Rip, he expired after only 11 months of fame, and was embalmed and put on display in Eastland, only to have his corpse kidnapped in 1973. Old Rip was eventually returned — or not, some suspect it was an imposter.

Whether it was a hoax to begin with, or even if the horny toad mummy on display today in Eastland isn’t actually Old Rip, the story did give us one inarguable benefit: It sparked the creation of Michigan J. Frog, star of one of the finest Warner Bros. cartoons, “One Froggy Evening.”


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