What happened to the horny toads?

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I was not more than seven years old when my little brother and I began building backyard zoos.  With whatever materials we could find, we would build tiny enclosures, creating a menagerie in the backyard to hold whatever wild animals we could catch.  Everything from crawdads to frogs, crickets to lizards, and maybe a field mouse or garter snake would temporarily inhabit our zoo.  A prized reptilian treasure, however, was always the horny toads, which were plentiful and particularly exciting, with a prehistoric fringe of horns and spiked body—a modern day miniature dinosaur.  We grew attached to the little beasts, which were quite docile and could be hypnotized by stroking their bellies.

I don’t think my children have ever seen a horny toad, aka Texas horned lizard, which have become scarce to non-existent in this part of Oklahoma.  What happened to all the horny toads that were once as common as crows here? Their decline is in part to loss of habitat, but the more likely culprit is the loss of their primary food source—red ants, or “harvester” ants.  Horny toads survive primarily on this single species of ant, which to a great extent has been eradicated by pesticides and an invasion of South American red fire ants, which kill off the native red ant species.

Given the nature of our civilization, change is inevitable. With the explosion of human population, it’s increasingly difficult to maintain the balance of nature anywhere.  Consequently, we are now in the greatest period of extinction since the dinosaurs. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that in the next half century, one third of the species now on earth may be extinct. Something to think about as we consider political issues like offering free birth control in developing countries and that onerous government regulation of pollution and hazardous chemicals that inhibits free enterprise.

The horny toad is now a threatened and protected species—it’s illegal to possess them without a special permit. I hope the flashy cardinals and the brilliant indigo buntings that frequent our bird feeders are not next on the endangered list. There’s something to learn here. Everything is connected. We can’t eradicate one species, such as the red ant, or drastically increase another species, the human race, without tipping the balance of nature. Here’s hoping that some enlightened souls out there will see the value of red ants and horny toads.

 

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/akbuthod/395828737/”>amy_b</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

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