Conservation Success Stories: Providing Texas Horned Lizards a Head Start

Here at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, we believe in the importance of conserving the world’s wildlife and wild places. In 2020, the Zoo raised over $220,000 to benefit local and global conservation efforts as part of its Round Up for Conservation initiative. Through individual guest contributions, Round Up for Conservation funds helped cultivate 10 conservation success stories in 2020. Of those ten, one success story focuses on Oklahoma's beloved lizard, the horny toad, also known as the Texas horned lizard. The Zoo partnered with Tinker Air Force Base (TAFB) and the University of Oklahoma (OU) to study and protect the dwindling population of Texas horned lizards.

The Texas horned lizard ranges from the southern United States to northern Mexico. They can be found throughout the majority of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. While they were once common across most of southern and central Oklahoma, their populations have drastically declined. One reason for this decline is due to habitat loss and habitat fragmentation by humans. The creation of roads or clearing of land for development has greatly reduced the amount of usable habitat for this species. Another factor contributing to population decline is a decrease in their food source, harvester ants. Harvester ant populations have been affected by insecticides, which in return affects Texas horned lizard populations. The illegal pet trade is another cause of population decline. Because of these threats, Texas horned lizards are considered a species of greatest conservation need, as well as a species of special concern by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC).

Since 2008, OKC Zoo staff have helped track and monitor horned lizards at a reserve on TAFB, collecting critical data for ongoing studies. In 2019 and 2020, Texas horned lizard eggs were collected from TAFB and brought to the Zoo for incubation. With support from OU, the Zoo established a Lizard Lab on grounds to raise and study Texas horned lizard hatchlings as part of a head start program. The Lizard Lab provides hatchlings a head start in a safe, controlled environment as they grow past their most vulnerable stage in life.

Sam Eliades, A Ph.D. student from OU, is currently caring for 34 lizard hatchlings in the Lizard Lab, monitoring their growth and studying their gut bacteria to compare with that of wild lizards. The Zoo’s postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Lisa Barrett, is conducting personality assessments on the hatchlings to measure activity, risk-taking and exploration, in order to determine whether personality affects survival.

The ultimate goal of this head start program is to improve survival rates and release the hatchlings in hopes of increasing Texas horned lizard populations. The hatchlings will be released at TAFB this summer. If their survival rates are higher than those of wild born lizards, this head start program will be used as a model to release lizards in other parts of the state. Additionally, if certain personality traits are associated with higher survival rates, the head start program can be tailored to help hatchlings develop more of those traits.

Wildlife and wild places are rapidly disappearing. The Zoo is working to save wildlife in Oklahoma and around the world. It’s our passion, and we need your help. Please join in supporting conservation efforts by signing the #ENDTHETRADE petition at https://endthetrade.com/ or by participating in the Zoo’s Round Up for Conservation initiative. 

-Dr. Rebecca Snyder, curator of conservation and science

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