Providing Texas Horned Lizards Populations, a Headstart

The Texas horned lizard, an iconic reptile species in Oklahoma, has been experiencing population declines since the 1960s. Threats to this species include overcollection for the pet trade, particularly in the early- and mid-1900s, the spread of invasive red imported fire ants, loss of their primary food source, harvester ants, and habitat loss.

Since 2003, scientists have been studying a particular population of these remarkable lizards on Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, to better understand their habitat preferences, diet, movement, and general biology. The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden has been a critical part of this research for over a decade, working to better understand and protect Texas horned lizard populations in their native ranges.

In 2019, the Zoo partnered with the Sam Noble Museum at the University of Oklahoma and Tinker Air Force Base to establish a headstart program for this species and increase the Base’s population of lizards. As part of this effort, eggs are collected from Tinker Air Force Base and brought back to the Zoo’s Lizard Lab to hatch and grow for a period of time before they are released into their native habitat. Currently, the Lizard Lab serves as a temporary home for over 30 young Texas horned lizards that hatched in 2019 and 2020. The lizards are growing quickly as we prepare for their release onto Tinker Air Force Base this coming spring.

I feel incredibly lucky to have been involved in this crucial conservation effort since the Zoo first partnered with the Sam Noble Museum in 2019. As a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, I have spent over a year studying and caring for these lizards, feeding them a variety of small insects three to five times a week and weighing them biweekly to ensure they remain healthy in anticipation for their move back to Tinker Air Force Base.

Watching these animals grow from just barely the size of a dime to more than tripling in size has been an amazing experience. I am particularly excited to be looking after these lizards because their transition onto Tinker Air Force Base will tell us a tremendous amount about how to care for and assist Texas horned lizard populations in the future. Studying how these lizards are able to adapt from Zoo life to native habitats is a central part of my graduate work at the University of Oklahoma.

Once the temperatures begin to rise in the spring, the lizards will be transferred to small habitats on Tinker Air Force Base for a short period to acclimate to their new surroundings. This soft release will enable us to keep the lizards safe from predators, while ensuring they can locate food on their own in the wild. Our hope is that the Texas horned lizards will continue to thrive when the habitats are removed as important members of the lizard population on Tinker Air Force Base. Scientists from the Zoo, the University of Oklahoma, and Tinker Air Force Base will continue to track and monitor the Lizard Lab’s animals for years to come as the headstart program continues to develop and maximize the number of lizards that can be protected, and ultimately, released in the future.

While the Lizard Lab isn’t viewable to Zoo guests, visitors can see a Texas horned lizard in the Big Rivers building of Oklahoma Trails.

-  Samuel Eliades, University of Oklahoma PhD candidate

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