From Headstart to Release: Texas Horned Lizards Return to Tinker Air Force Base


The Texas horned lizard is an iconic reptile species in Oklahoma. Once common in the state, these lizards have experienced population declines since the 1960s, resulting in their listing as a species of special concern in Oklahoma. Threats to this species include habitat loss, the spread of invasive red imported fire ants, loss of their primary food source (harvester ants) and overcollection for the pet trade, particularly in the early and mid-1900s.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Texas Horned Lizard Headstart Program at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden’s (OKC Zoo) Lizard Lab began as a collaborative partnership in 2019 with the Sam Noble Museum (SNM), the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Tinker Air Force Base (TAFB). The goal of this headstart programs is to help horned lizard hatchlings grow past their most vulnerable stages in life in a safe, controlled environment, and thus help the wild population of lizards at TAFB to expand. Ultimately, this program will help to protect and expand the native population of lizards on TAFB. Since 2003, scientists have been studying a population of these remarkable lizards on TAFB to better understand their habitat preferences, diet, movement patterns and general biology. Data gathered through this study, provided the foundation for developing the headstart program and are needed for measuring its success. The Zoo has been a proud partner in this critical conservation effort for over a decade.

After spending one to two years in human care at the Zoo’s Lizard Lab, the first group of Texas horned lizards to be a part of the headstart program have been released back into their natural habitat on TAFB. Solar powered tracking tags or harmonic radar diodes were safely fitted onto each of the juvenile lizards to help researchers locate the individuals on TAFB and continue to monitor their health, growth, habitat preferences, and activity levels.

Upon arrival to TAFB, the lizards were released into small, sheltered habitats for a short period of time. This method, referred to as a “soft release,” enabled the lizards to acclimate to their new environment before complete exposure to the property. During this period, researchers ensured that the lizards were successful in acquiring food on their own and finding shelter. Once they were ready, researchers removed the small habitats and watched as the lizards ventured into their permanent homes. Currently, researchers are actively tracking more than 15 lizards from the headstart program in native habitat on TAFB.

The data from this program will not only provide critical information the optimal environment needed for this species to thrive, but also helps researchers to improve the headstart program and further its impact on Texas horned lizard conservation efforts. Sam Eliades, a Ph.D. Candidate from OU, has been leading the Lizard Lab’s headstart program since its inception. Eliades cared for, monitored and studied the lizards in the Lizard Lab and on TAFB and will continue to care for lizards during the next iteration of the headstart program.

Since the release of the first group of lizards, 16 more eggs have been collected from TAFB and brought to the Lizard Lab. The eggs will be stored in an incubator for around 60 days before hatching. The hatchlings will then become part of the second headstart group to be raised and eventually released from the OKC Zoo’s Lizard Lab.

Scientists from the Zoo, OU, and TAFB will continue to track and monitor the Lizard Lab’s animals for years to come as the headstart program continues to develop, aiming to maximize the number of lizards that can be released, and ultimately, protected in the future.

The Zoo is committed to contributing its expertise and resources to conserve the world’s wildlife and wild places. You can help this beloved lizard species from the comfort of your home by refraining from using pesticides and reporting Texas horned lizard sightings to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Zoo guests can also contribute to conservation by choosing to “Round Up for Conservation” when purchasing food and merchandise at the Zoo. The funds from this initiative directly benefit the Zoo’s local and global conservation efforts and make a long-lasting impact on the world’s wild and wonderful creatures, including the Texas horned lizard.


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