How the Pearland Nature Center is trying to return Texas’ horned lizards to their old habitats

One look at a Texas horned lizard — like the 12 now acclimating to their new environment at the Delores Fenwick Nature Center in Pearland — makes it clear why this reptile is turning heads.

“If you’ve seen one up close, it’s really amazing to see all their spines and spines,” said Cullen Ondraek, natural resources manager for the city’s parks and recreation department.

The Pearland Dozen arrived in July through a partnership between the wildlife center, 5750 Magnolia Parkway, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) as part of a captive breeding initiative to restore the reptile in places where it once thrived.

‘Iconic Species’

“They’re such an iconic species of the state of Texas,” said Ondraek, whose role at the center focuses on conservation in the local community. “Most adult residents have fond memories of the spiny lizards growing up, and I think it’s a combination of reasons why most people have an appreciation for horned lizards.”

The Phrynosoma cornutum, or Texas horned lizard, still inhabits other parts of the nation, but TPWD considers it an endangered species in the Lone Star State, where it was so widespread and loved that the legislature named it the official state reptile in 1993. The population of the lizard, also known as the horned toad, in areas such as Pearland has declined or disappeared for a variety of reasons, including urbanization, pesticide use, and scarcity of the lizard’s primary food source, the harvester ant.

The distinctive features of this lizard capture the imagination, especially young ones, said Andy Gluesenkamp, ​​director of the San Antonio Zoo, which leads a similar captive breeding program.

With scales along each side of a flat body, short legs, a visible backbone that goes down, and four predator-like horns on its head, the Texas horned lizard appears prehistoric, like a miniature dinosaur, or more specifically, the armored Ankylosaurus, which is one of the more formidable opponents of predator Tyrannosaurus rex.

“In the past,[the lizards]were abundant in areas where many Texans grew up, and they were in the universe of children, especially children who spent a lot of time playing in the dirt,” Gluesenkamp said.

Their approachability, he added, made them a natural magnet for children.

Despite the ferocious physical appearance, these tiny creatures are actually docile, Ondraek said.

“If they’re found in the wild, people can usually get a really good look at them, which isn’t as common in wildlife in general,” he said.

Strange Survival Tools

The reptiles also have unusual traits that fascinate naturalists like Ondrack, such as the way the animals spray a blood mixture from their eyes to deter potential enemies, or how they draw in water in arid climates.

“They have small channels that run through their scales to direct water that has collected on their backs, perhaps from the morning dew, to their mouths for drinking, which is a very useful adaptation to get into some of the driest parts of the stands alive.’, Ondraek said.

During the breeding process at the wildlife center, employees will place captive-produced eggs in incubators and then move the hatched lizards to aquarium tanks to wait about three months before being released into the wild at various TPWD sites.

The 12 will be paired up each year for better genetic diversity and remain at the center for their entire lives to support the conservation efforts of each new group of eggs.

The biggest challenge in the captive breeding process is creating a perfect habitat for the lizards to thrive, Ondrecek said.

The harvest ant they love to eat has disappeared from most of the region due to insecticides and fire ants.

“They eat a lot of it — at least 100 a day,” Ondraek said.

Careful daily care required

The enclosures also need to mimic a range of conditions, such as enough sunlight for the lizards to bask, but also plenty of places to cool off. During the winter months in the wild, the Texas horned lizard will instinctively bury itself in the ground.

“To mimic this,” Ondraek said, “each lizard (in the middle) will go into a small animal bag with about a foot of substrate in which to bury them and then place them in a specialized refrigerator.”

It’s a detailed process that requires an all-hands-on-deck approach from employees, said Katie Boughal, the naturalist with the Pearland Parks and Recreation Department.

During each interaction with the lizards, she said, the staff monitors their overall health by recording records and noting any changes in behavior or weight and making sure the simulated habitat is clean and accurately mimics what they would in the wild. find.

“All care for the lizards is on a daily basis, meaning there is someone at the wildlife center on weekends and holidays and in all weather conditions to feed and care for the lizards,” Boughal said.

According to Ondraek, research shows success at these reintroduction sites, and the Delores Fenwick Center is part of a larger movement, such as the larger-scale restoration efforts at the Fort Worth Zoo and San Antonio Zoo.

“Our role in this work is to try to provide more lizards for release for further current efforts,” Ondraek said.

Gluesenkamp hopes programs like the one in Pearland will help restore the Texas horned lizard to a once thriving habitat and reconnect it with communities.

“When was the last time you saw an empty plot of land? Look at Pearland now versus 50 years ago,” Gluesenkamp said. “(The Nature Center’s program) reaches out to a community full of people who loved horned lizards and remember being everywhere on the ground next to churches and alleyways of neighborhood supermarkets.”

Exhibition planned for public viewing

While the lizards aren’t ready for their public close-up yet, the center plans to host an exhibit to the public later in the process, Ondraek said.

“We want people to be able to see and connect with such an amazing creature,” he said. “I believe this kind of experience helps to promote and promote conservation to a wider audience.”

Gluesenkamp summed up the lizard’s strange appeal this way: “What makes it charismatic? I’m talking about a small, spiny, insect-eating lizard with dead eyes and a multi-purpose hole in the back.”

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