Episode 4 – Horned Lizard: Survival Through Blood, Sweat, and Tears

In the dusty old texan desserts, ain’t no one gonna help you when buzzerds and coyotes come a-callin. If you wanna survive out here, you better make like a lizard with a deep bag of tricks. Set a spell and learn you a thing or two about the lengths one wasteland reptile will go to to maintain the balance of Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Lizards are some of the coolest animals there are. They squat like mighty dragons atop majestic rocks and also on the hood of your car. The only problem is that they tend to be on the menu for a wide variety of predators. But there’s one lizard that is equipped with a special and disgusting weapon to fend off attackers. Most lizards just drop their tails and chalk it up to a loss, but the horned lizard releases a very different body part to avoid being eaten.


Intrigued yet? Well prepare for some even more interesting taxonomy! Before we get into the nitty gritty, we have to learn the scientific name of the beasts that call this planet home. Here’s the breakdown:

Kingdom: Animalia (yeah, you probably figured that one)

Phylum: Chordata (because it has a spine)

Class: Reptila (no big surprise here, hopefully)

Order: Squamata (You’re not familiar with this order? What’s squamata with you?)

Suborder: Iguania (South Florida is all-too familiar with this suborder)

Family: Phrynosomatidae (we don’t know how to pronounce this either)

Genus: Phrynosoma

Since horned lizards make up a whole genus, there is no official binomial nomenclature. But if you want to get specific, the scientific name of the Texas horned lizard is Phrynosoma cornutum. But don’t get excited, Phrynosoma translates to “toad-bodied” and cornutum is “horned”, so no one is winning any prizes for originality here.

Where Does the Horned Lizard Live?

That was fun. But let’s keep this train rolling, there’s bloody eyeballs to talk about later. First, though, we need to figure out where this scruffball lives.

Well we chose the Phrynosoma cornutum because it’s the Texas horned lizard and we wanted to cover the biggest one out there. Needless to say, this cowboy lives in primarily in the lone star state. But it also lives in Colorado, Northern Mexico, Arizona, Kansas, the Carolinas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida, and the Carolinas—basically the south/southwestern parts of the U.S.

Measure Up: How Big is a Horned Lizard?

Looking at pictures, the horned lizard may seem like a big ball of armor and spines. But it’s actually relatively small, which means it has to take some drastic measures to avoid getting eaten by just about everything. The Texas horned lizard usually gets to be about only 2.7 inches or 69 millimeters in length. Some have ever reached 4.5 inches, but that’s not common. Despite this small size, it is the largest horned lizard species in the world.

What Is Its Diet?

The horned lizard lives in the desert, so food isn’t necessarily abundant across those American sands. One thing that is abundant, however, is insects—primarily, ants. Around seventy percent of the Texas horned lizard’s diet is made up of harvester ants. They also eat termites, grasshoppers, desert beetles, and other small insects they can find.

Things like pesticides and the introduction of an invasive and aggressive species of fire ants have contributed to a decline in both the population and the range of our horned friend. So keep that in mind when you’re spraying around willy nilly.

Steer Clear of Its Blood Attack

This diet doesn’t come without distinct advantages, though. Harvester ants have a chemical that tastes pretty gross to anything other than a horned lizard, and it seems like he knows it.

Get ready for nastiness.

When confronted by a predator or other threat, the horned lizard will shoot a jet stream of blood from its eyeballs at the attacker.

It does this by altering the flow of blood in its head. Usually, for most vertebrates, the heart pumps blood to deliver oxygen to the brain and then carries it away back to the lungs to get more oxygen. The horned lizard can interrupt the blood’s return journey and keep it trapped in the head. As more blood is pumped into its head, the pressure increases until blood shoots out from the lizard’s eyeballs. The streams can shoot out up to 5 feet!

It’s pretty accurate too. Our little sharpshooter aims for the animal’s eyes and mouth. The eyes is a no brainer, blinding a predator makes it easier to get away. But you may be wondering why it would shoot blood into a predator’s mouth. Doesn’t the animal like the taste of blood?

Well, here is where the harvester ants come in. The horned lizard mixes its blood with the foul-tasting chemical in the ants before letting it fly. It has a marked effect on mammalian predators like dogs and coyotes, but usually doesn’t work on birds—which are known throughout the animal kingdom as stone-cold killers.

But there you have it! The horned lizard squirts a stream of nasty ant-riddled blood out of it’s eyes to protect itself, so keep that in mind if you’re ever in the American South and see a cool-looking lizard.

Be sure to check out our episode on the horned lizard and subscribe to our podcast! Just type in Life, Death, and Taxonomy into your podcast app! Oh, and you can also leave a shining review if you’re in the digital neighborhood.

Music by NADA