Lizard Lab: OKC Zoo Welcomes Texas Horned Lizard Hatchlings

Twenty-two lizard hatchlings are currently being hand-raised by the OKC Zoo’s reptile and amphibian department in partnership with several key organizations, to gain more information on reptile translocation techniques that can be shared with other conservation partners.  Zoo Curator, Stacey Sekscienski, took the time to answer 11 riveting questions about this crucial research. 

Why is the OKC Zoo involved in the Lizard Lab project?
The OKC Zoo was approached by Tinker Air Force Base to collaborate on a Department of Defense research project entitled “Transferring Translocation Science to Wildlife Conservation on Department of Defense Installations: Demonstration of Environmental Enrichment and Soft Release Technology” for Texas Horned Lizards“ developed by Dr. Brett DeGregorio, wildlife biologist with the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center—Construction Engineering Research Laboratory. Although Texas horned lizards (also known as horny toads) are not threatened in Oklahoma, they are a species of special concern in our state, which means they are afforded some protection.  

The Zoo’s objective is to assist the Construction Engineering Research Lab and Tinker Air Force Base biologists to environmentally enrich a group of captive Texas horned lizards and determine the effects of “enriched” captive husbandry on post-release behavior and survival. Enriched captivity provides a more natural setting with other lizard hatchlings and amenities such as habitat features (i.e., rocks, vegetation/wood) to give the lizards a more natural experience.  If the lizards are able to hatch and thrive in enriched captivity, these results should further demonstrate the importance and necessity of raising animals in more enriched and naturalistic environments. 

We thought the project would be a great way to expand, not only our knowledge about this species, but also our involvement in scientific research. The OKC Zoo’s role is to provide housing and care for48 hatchlings for 8-10 months. Then, Dr. Gregorio will travel to Oklahoma to run behavioral trials between the two groups before releasing and tracking the hatchlings at Tinker Air Force Base.
Who are the partners of this project?
Partners of this project include the United States Army, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the Engineer Research and Development Center—Construction Engineering Research Laboratory; the University of Illinois at Carbondale; Tinker Air Force Base, 72 ABW/CE Natural Resources Program; and the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden. 

What is the ultimate goal for the collection of Texas horned lizards in the OKC Zoo's care?  
Our ultimate goal is to release the hatchlings at Tinker Air Force Base next Spring – once they are grown. We will then determine if the ‘environmental enrichment’ and a soft release approach can improve survival of translocated Texas horned lizards.

What is the Texas horned lizard's greatest threat in the wild?
There is not just one! Threats to Texas horned lizards include habitat loss, widespread use of insecticides (i.e, that wipe out native ants), spread of invasive fire ants and over-collection for the pet trade.

How were the eggs and hatchlings acquired and transported?
Two wild-caught female lizards that were being tracked on Tinker were brought to the OKC Zoo by Natural Resources personnel in order for them to lay their eggs in the lab. Those eggs were then artificially incubated.  As soon as the eggs were laid, the female lizards were taken back to their home at Tinker Air Force Base. So far, three of the eggs from the first clutch have hatched. The other clutch is expected to hatch around the first of September. Then, on August 2, technicians from Tinker Air Force Base brought in 13 newly-hatched, wild-caught lizards from the study location on Tinker. This was done to ensure a random mix of both lab-hatched and wild-hatched lizards for the study.
Why are the hatchlings in the Zoo's care being hand-reared?
The OKC Zoo provides expertise in raising and handling reptiles. The OKC Zoo’s facility also provide a controlled environment in which lizards can be raised in a natural “enhanced’ and aquaria settings.  Later, these lizards can undergo test trials to determine the impact from the environment they were held. 
What is the process for managing the Lizard Lab?
Three large climate controlled tanks are provided with an “enriched environment” for groups of lizards and individual glass aquaria are provided with only basic living conditions for solitary lizards.  Monitoring occurs on a daily basis, we have to make sure all of their needs are met i.e. lighting, food offerings, etc. These things are checked several times a day. 
How many young Texas-horned lizards are in the Zoo's care?
Currently, twenty-two lizards are in the OKC Zoo’s care but more continue to hatch both in the lab and at the research site.  Our goal is to have at least 48 individual hatchlings for the trials.
What did the reptile and amphibian curator do to prepare for this project?
First, I created a budget of how much it would cost to both set up and care for these lizards until next Spring and relayed that information to the Department of Defense. Then, once approved I began purchasing items to construct the lab. Any dollars spent, with exception of the salaries of our OKC Zoo employees, was awarded by the Department of Defense. I communicated with other zoos that have been successful in raising Texas horned lizards in the past to ensure that the Zoo was properly prepared. I also referred to the Texas horned lizard studbook publication, which includes comprehensive information on how to care for this species.
Then, I set up with the basic needs mentioned below. We were also lucky enough to get some additional funding to hire a part-time lizard lab tech to help take care of these little ones. Our part-time animal caretakers also help to manage the lab and care for the lizards three days a week.
How are the hatchlings cared for?

The hatchlings are provided with all of their basic needs – sandy substrate, UV lighting, basking spots,  multiple hiding spots and a variety of insects three times a day. Even though hatchlings primarily feed on termites and small ants, in a lab setting, our staff was able to feed the hatchlings pinhead crickets, termites, and bean and flour beetles. To keep them hydrated, the hatchlings are also misted 1-2 times a day.
What does the team like most about this project?

The Texas horned lizard is an iconic animal to many Oklahomans and an important species of interest to wildlife conservationists. While the OKC Zoo participates in many conservation initiatives around the world, this particular project allows us to give back to our local wildlife. This project is a great example of how the Zoo is collaborating with other agencies to help learn about a native Oklahoman species.

– Stacey Sekscienski, Zoo curator 

Photo Gallery

Photos: Stacey Sekscienski and Ariel Richter 

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