What to Know About Texas Horned Lizards

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on November 22, 2022
4 min read

A unique reptile in both appearance and behavior, the Texas horned lizard is a favorite of many people, especially older Texans. Young people may have never seen Texas horned lizards, as they became a threatened species in 1977. 

If a Texas horned lizard were larger, it would be a frightening creature. Covered with spiny growths that are actually scales, the horned lizard wears a crown of spikes, with the two largest looking like horns. A double row of fringelike spines goes down each side of its rounded body, separating the lizard's back from its underbelly. But the Texas horned lizard weight is only 1 to 3 ounces. Males won't reach 4 inches long, not counting the tail. Females are slightly larger. 

Texas horned lizards are light brown or tan with darker spots, helping them to blend into sandy or rocky soil. Their flat bodies, blunt snouts, and short tails make them unlike long, sleek lizards. No wonder some people call them horned toads or horned frogs.

The scientific name of the Texas horned lizard is Phrynosoma cornutum. The first word means "with a body like a toad." The second one means "horned".

Texas horned lizards live in all of Texas except for a small swath of East Texas. Their range also covers northern Mexico, Oklahoma, and small portions of other states near Texas: New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The Texas horned lizard habitat is arid or somewhat arid, with a mixture of bare ground and vegetation. The vegetation shouldn't be thick enough to block the sun or to hamper the lizards' movement.

Several factors have caused the number of Texas horned lizards to decline. These include:

  • Humans have expanded into their habitat and have converted some wild areas to agricultural use.
  • Invasive fire ants have killed off many native harvester ants, which are horned lizards' preferred food.
  • Humans fighting fire ants with pesticides have further reduced the harvester ant population.
  • People once caught Texas horned lizards for pets, a practice now outlawed.

Although horned lizards prefer a diet of ants, they'll eat other insects as well. They can eat up to 100 ants a day, capturing them with their sticky tongues. They don't wipe out a colony before moving on, though, because they need to return to the colony multiple times. 

Although horned lizards look hard to digest, they're on the menu for some other species. Animals that prey on them include:

  • Canids (dogs, coyotes, wolves, foxes)
  • Snakes (Western diamondback rattler, sidewinder, coachwhip, Sonoran whipsnake)
  • Raptors (prairie falcon, American kestrel, red-shouldered hawk)
  • Other birds (loggerhead shrike, greater roadrunner)

But don't worry. Horned lizards have a variety of ways to escape predators.

Texas horned lizards use an amazing range of defensive strategies.

Shooting blood from their eyes. Horned lizards can squirt a stream of blood out of an eye. Lizards use this method against cats, dogs, and doglike predators, who seem to dislike the taste of the blood. 

Using camouflage. Texas horned lizards have protective coloration that's so effective that they practically disappear on sandy soil. They also flatten themselves against the ground to avoid casting a shadow. 

Running and freezing. Lizards often combine running from predators with abruptly freezing in place, using their protective coloration to hide.

Inflating their bodies. Texas horned lizards can puff up their bodies to make them double in size and hard to swallow. The spikes help too. 

Going on the offensive. When forced to face an enemy, horned lizards open their mouths wide and hiss and may even lunge at their attacker.

Have you ever wondered why ant venom doesn't bother the Texas horned lizard? Their throats secrete mucus strands that wrap around the ants and render them harmless. Here are some more fun Texas horned lizard facts:

  • They adapt to dry environments by licking up dew, including moisture that forms on their own backs.
  • The males indicate they want to mate by rapidly bobbing their heads, while the females nod their heads in response.
  • The females lay up to 30 eggs at a time.
  • The inch-long hatchlings look like miniature adults.
  • Baby lizards get no care from their parents. 
  • Texas horned lizards hibernate about half the year, from October until March or April.

If you live in Texas, you can get a license plate with a horned lizard on it. The extra fee for the plate supports conservation efforts, including horned lizard research.

Since 1991, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has been studying how to increase the state's population of Texas horned lizards. The TPWD formed the Texas Horned Lizard Coalition with member zoos and Texas Christian University (whose mascot is the "horned frog"). Member zoos raise horned lizards and release them into the wild. Recent surveys show that some of the released lizards are living and reproducing.

The Horned Lizard Conservation Society is a small nonprofit that funds research about the various species of horned lizards. Members label themselves “Phrynosomatics” after the scientific name of horned lizards.

If you have access to an area where horned lizards live, you can be a part of the Texas Horned Lizard Watch sponsored by the TPWD. You can visit your area regularly or report any sightings. The TPWD suggests that you be especially watchful on warm days and check out areas near ant beds, especially harvester ant beds. 

You can also help by creating a habitat for horned lizards. Supply patches of bare ground by cleaning up ground litter. Avoid using broadcast pesticides. Don't try to capture and breed Texas horned lizards, as they're difficult to keep alive. (Imagine trying to keep them supplied with ants!) Since they're a threatened species, you must have a scientific permit to handle them. For more Texas horned lizard information, contact the TWPD.