The Horned Frogs are making a comeback. Not the purple and white kind you find at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth. That breed is threatened by the changing climate in the Big 12 Conference.
No, the actual horned frogs — horny toads, Texas horned lizards or Phrynosoma cornutum. Those little guys recorded a milestone last month in the long effort to restore their decimated numbers.
On Aug. 11, a social media page managed by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department featured a photo of a tiny hatchling thought to be descended from horned lizards bred in captivity at the Fort Worth Zoo.
“To our knowledge, this is the first time that Texas Horned Lizards that were reintroduced as captive-reared hatchlings have successfully reproduced in the wild,” the page read.
Horned lizards have been threatened in Texas since the 1970s. Nathan Rains, a wildlife diversity biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, said the species has “virtually disappeared” from some parts of the state where it was once “widespread and abundant.”
Numbers have declined because of loss of habitat and displacement of native harvester ant populations by invading fire ants, Rains said. Harvester ants are the preferred food for horned lizards.
Since 1993, when Texas recognized the horned lizard as its official state reptile, researchers have been trying to grow the population through programs that track animals or protect habitat. Rains described a broad coalition that has formed around saving the lizards.
In 2008, Texas Christian University began a genetics research project. From 2011 to 2016, the Fort Worth Zoo conducted a pilot study to test ways of reintroducing lizards to the wild. To date, more than 500 captive-raised hatchlings, most from the Fort Worth and Dallas zoos, have been released at the Mason Mountain Wildlife Management Area in Mason County.
Texas Parks and Wildlife spokesman Tom Harvey said horned lizards are one of 1,300 threatened species the department is working to protect. He said efforts to bolster the horned lizard population will continue, with the next release of hatchlings scheduled for this month.
The horned lizard isn’t out of the woods yet. While biologists are celebrating this milestone, they warn there is much more work to do.
“Biologists remain optimistic that continued research and restoration work will ultimately lead to self-sustaining wild populations,” Rains said.
As the national paper of Texas, and one that fought many battles with Fort Worth newspaperman Amon G. Carter, we’re not all TCU fans, but we’re cheering for these horned frogs.
• The Dallas Morning News editorial board via The Associated Press