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Agricultural News

Endangered Species Protection Sought for Oklahoma's Disappearing Horned Lizards

Thu, 18 Dec 2014 10:18:22 CST

Endangered Species Protection Sought for Oklahoma's Disappearing Horned Lizards

The Center for Biological Diversity, concerned scientists and a 15-year-old lizard enthusiast filed a formal petition today seeking state endangered species protection in Oklahoma for the Texas horned lizard. Despite their name, these formidable-looking lizards with numerous horns on their heads were once common throughout Oklahoma, but have now nearly disappeared due to habitat destruction, pesticides and introduced fire ants.

"Time's running out for these lizards," said Collette Adkins Giese, a Center biologist and lawyer focused on protecting reptiles and amphibians. "The state of Oklahoma needs to recognize the dire situation these rare creatures are in before it's too late."

Today's petition documents that the Texas horned lizard has undergone massive declines in Oklahoma and continues to be threatened by loss of habitat and many other factors. Fifteen-year-old Kade Wilson contacted the Center for help in protecting the lizards after learning that a shopping center would be built in a field near his home, where he enjoyed finding the lizards, also known as "horny toads." The lizard is already listed as a "threatened species" in Texas. In both states it is illegal to kill the lizards or collect them for pets.

"I'm a fifteen-year-old and I might not be a scientist or a biologist but I know that the horny toad is just trying to share the Earth with us, and we're taking it away from them," said Wilson, who joined the petition. "Horny toads look like modern dinosaurs, and that's why they're interesting to me. If we don't protect them, the horny toads too will be gone."

Experts agree that the Texas horned lizard is suffering substantial declines not just in Oklahoma, but across its range in the Midwest and Southwest. Because the lizard eats harvester ants and not much else, pesticides that kill its ant prey also harm the lizard. Other threats include invasive red fire ants (that outcompete the native harvesters), drought from climate change, and illegal collection for the pet trade. The loss of these lizards is alarming because reptiles play important roles as predators and prey in their ecosystems and are valuable indicators of environmental health.

"It's so sad that horned lizards are declining. These beautiful creatures are iconic members of desert and prairie communities of the western United States," said Dr. Geoffrey Carpenter, a herpetologist and co-author of today's petition. "We need to protect the lizard and its habitat while we still can."

The Texas horned lizard has prominent horns on its head and spines scattered over its backs and sides. To avoid being eaten by predators, the normally flat-bodied lizard can puff up and appear very fat, causing its body scales to protrude so the lizard cannot be easily swallowed. The lizard also ejects blood from its eyes when threatened; in courtship males rapidly bob their heads, and females nod their heads in response.

Although reptiles have been around for hundreds of millions of years and survived all past mass extinction events, now, due largely to human impacts, they're dying off at up to 10,000 times the historic extinction rate. About 20 percent of reptiles in the world are endangered or vulnerable to extinction.

The Center was joined in its petition for the Texas horned lizard by Dr. Steve Sheffield, a zoologist who received his Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University, and Dr. Geoffrey Carpenter, a herpetologist affiliated with the University of Oklahoma Biological Station.

Photo Courtesy USFWS, Robert Burton.



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