Region III Quarterly

Volume 3 - No. 4

October, 1941


By Harold J. Brodrick,
Assistant Chief Ranger,
Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Probably no other living thing is more emblematic of the desert than the horned toad. He is at his best in the dry, sparsely vegetated sandy areas, where he prowls contentedly in the blazing sunlight, under conditions that are frequently almost unendurable by man. He is, after all, not a toad, but a reptile, and he has the appearance of some prehistoric creature in miniature. He is rather ferocious-looking at times, but he can't hurt you.

The horned toads are lizards of the genus Phrynosoma, or horned lizards, and they are found only in Mexico and in the western portions of the United States. The number of species generally recognized is seventeen, of which four are exclusively Mexican, while several others range only a short distance northward into the United States. They are distinct from all other genera of North American lizards. They have a wide and flattened toad-like body, a short tail and, in most species, sharp, conical horns upon the back of the head and the temples. The back is usually covered with numerous sharp-pointed and pyramid-like scales.

horned toad
HORNED TOAD. The horned toad is a harmless lizard and like other liards, he feeds on insects. The majority of lizards catch their prey by aggressive rushes, but this little fellow slips up quietly and, with a flash of the thick viscid tongue, draws the morsel into his mouth.

Though they are formidable looking, the horned toads are gentle, and rather spiritless. They seldom try to bite. Occasionally they will attempt the impossible - to cause injury by use of their horns. They are viviparous, producing usually from six to twelve living young. At birth the young are encased individually in a transparent envelope through which they soon break. They are active immediately, and are fully able to care for themselves. At this stage the horns are only rudimentary; they do not appear rough and spiny like those of the parent.

One of the most interesting traits is the method of preparation for the night. While the sun is still high and the heat shimmers from the sand, the little creature places his armored nose into the sand like a plow, scooping until a furrow is produced. Then flattening its body into the furrow, and using the spiny borders of its sides like shovels, it digs deeper into the sand. Using its head and sides alternately it casts the sand over its back until it is entirely covered. Sometimes it digs to 2 or 3 inches below the surface, or often the top of its head is level with the surface. When the warmth of the sun strikes the sand the next morning a movement appears on the smooth surface and, as in slow motion, the horns, head, body and tail appear, and the reptile is again at his daily foraging.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005