Lizards wearing backpacks may sound like new animated movie characters—but zoo employees will tell you that these creatures exist in real life.
These backpacking reptiles are part of a local conservation project at Tinker Air Force Base. Texas Horned Lizards (you might know them as Oklahoma Horny Toads) have been fitted with miniature radio transmitters, so that researchers can track their movement in a field owned by the base.
“To mark their location, we radio track them on a GPS system several times a week,” said Shawn Sims, a zookeeper who volunteers for the project. “We check their weight, measure their horns, and make sure they are okay.”
The 2 ½ inch lizards, once a common sight in Oklahoma, have declined to the point that they are now listed as a Species of Special Concern. However, a surviving population was discovered at Tinker. Graduate students from Oklahoma State University, and later, Southern Illinois University, formed a partnership with U.S. Air Force biologist, Ray Moody, and the Oklahoma Wildlife Department. Since 2003, these entities have gathered information about the understudied reptile. In 2008, the Oklahoma City Zoo became involved in the project.
“One of our goals at the Oklahoma City Zoo is to educate people about the animals in their own back yards,” said Stacey Sekscienski, Curator of Reptiles, Amphibians and Aquatics. “Supporting conservation efforts like this is a crucial part of the zoo’s mission statement.”
Because of the zoo’s commitment to conservation, managers have invited all interested zoo employees, not just herpetologists, to participate in the project during the work hours. Both Shawn Sims, from the Cat Department, and Andrea Beshara, from the Education Department, appreciate the opportunity to do active field research; something they miss from their college days.
“It was truly exciting to encounter my first Texas Horned Lizard in the wild,” said Beshara. “Not easy…but exhilarating.”
Early in the project, small feathers were glued to the lizard’s stomachs and dusted with fluorescent orange powder. Researchers followed the powder trails. Now, $100 radio transmitters are used.
“We sew a little elastic collar around the lizard’s neck that attaches to the radio backpack,” said Sims.
“The backpack is glued onto their backs with a special glue that doesn’t harm them,” added Beshara. “It easily comes off when they molt, so we often have to reattach them.”
“Or replace them when the battery starts to die,” said Sims.
Sometimes tracking the lizards proves challenging. Twice, zoo staff have tracked a radio signal into the stomach of another animal: a copperhead hiding in a bush and a hawk flying across the field.
As cooler weather approaches, researchers encounter a different situation: hibernation.
Beshara described herself on hands and knees searching for unseen lizards. “They had buried themselves about two inches under the ground, so all we could see was a black transmitting wire sticking out of the ground like a stick.”
As early as September, lizards were already starting to nest down for the winter. Research will come to a halt in the dead of winter, and pick back up in the spring.
“If we find a horny toad buried in the same place for two or three weeks straight, we put caging around it to mark the spot,” Sims said. “Eventually the radio battery will die, but we can still find them that way.”
Lizards wearing backpacks. Makes complete sense now, doesn’t it?
For zoo staff, it’s not in a typical day’s work—it’s a special effort to gain crucial information that may help save a native species, in hopes that future generations will once again experience the familiar sight of seeing horny toads roaming freely.
Texas Horned Lizards are unaware of the fact, but they may be carrying their whole future on their backs.
Lizards Wearing Backpacks (pdf of article, ZooSounds, Winter 2010 issue)