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‘Toad’ Sniffers

The latest high-tech tool to track released horned lizards? Dogs.


You may remember the adorably bumpy models under a spotlight for our December 2018 feature, “The Comeback Kid.” Texas zoos are raising horned lizards in captivity and releasing them at sites with abundant suitable habitat, and we couldn’t resist taking a fascinating tour of the San Antonio Zoo’s program to see the babies for ourselves.

What’s happened to the adorable baby “horny toads” we met two years ago, and all that have hatched since? Things must be hopping for the zoo’s conservation director, Andy Gluesenkamp, and the toad team.

In fall of 2020, 84 zoo-born horned lizards were released on a private ranch in Blanco County, selected by using a high-tech vegetation map. The team returned a week later with a trained scent dog and handler (Paul Bunker, owner of Chiron K-9) to see if they could find any of the released lizards.

“We use super-awesome technology to place them, and we use super low-tech dogs to find them again,” Gluesenkamp says, laughing.

He’s actually a big fan of the dog-tracking process. Although the first experimental forays — first with one dog and, a week later, two dogs — didn’t yield any actual lizard sightings, the dogs signaled with confidence at “planted” lizard scat and a few promising piles of leaves that could have contained lizard scat. Bad weather didn’t help.

“Horned lizards are really good at escaping detection,” Gluesenkamp says. “That’s the only reason we have any left at all. They’re just doing what horned lizards do best.”

Cooler days mean the lizards will go down for the winter, he explains, but warmth will bring them back up. They’ll bring the dogs out to the site again in the spring.

Meanwhile, the San Antonio Zoo team will continue to raise more babies to at least 4 months old for future releases on the same property, 100 per year for the next two years, then 25 per year after that.

They’re ready to capitalize on what they’ve built, now adding another freestanding “Lizard Factory” (actually a converted shipping container) they’ve funded through donations.

Gluesenkamp realized they could cut costs by adding a few more self-contained pods at the same time, quadrupling the number of baby horned lizards they can produce and allowing them to release at multiple locations.

Horned lizards are not yet an endangered species, but they’re not as plentiful in some areas where they once thrived, and they are threatened by loss of habitat.

Want to help? Go to www.sazoo.org/texas-horned-lizard.


 Louie Bond  Chase Fountain | TPWD

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