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Baptism by Frog | Frog of ages | Sign language

Horned Frog defined

By Joyce Gibson Roach '58



Phrynosoma is a fancy word for horned frogs. I've always called them horny toads, and I've played with them all my life, but I never meant to get so tangled up with them. It was elephants I wanted.

As a child, I used to go down the aisle, at every church, every summer, at every opportunity to rededicate my life to whatever cause was pending at revivals. Since I was "saved" and a baptized Baptist -- and they only give you one chance at that -- I had to make do with rededication, which you could do as many times as you felt like. I felt like it a lot.

One of my favorite causes was to commit myself to the darkest jungles of Africa where I meant to clothe the naturally naked folks I had seen in the forbidden National Geographic, quickly give them the plan of salvation in English, of course, and then cut straight for the elephants. I fell in love with the gentle beasts at the Saturday afternoon Tarzan picture shows. Tarzan called the elephants -- and a lot of other animals, too -- with his mighty yodeling technique. I had practiced that and was ready to join him.

Tarzan seemed to me a kind of missionary, dressing in some sort of animal skin, living in trees, protecting his world from greedy outsiders who wanted to capture animals to put in a zoo.

The years passed and I didn't get to Africa; had to make do with the zoo. If someone had actually spirited away the elephants from my Tarzan to put in my zoo, it was a notion too complicated for me to grasp.

And I read a lot; became fully informed about Africa, everything and everybody there.

Then getting a higher education got in the way, and a football player, and dancing and a lot of other foolishness came along, and, well, I just never did make it. At TCU, a case of practicality set in. I got "real." The mascot was the Horned Frog, not the elephant, and I had played with the spiny creatures all my life, not elephants.

Then I got wind of the fact that horned lizards were in trouble, disappearing, endangered, just like elephants. I discovered, too, that I could help wildlife scientists save horny toads -- could get "in the field" so to speak -- and give up the call to Africa with a clear conscience.

RURAL CHILDREN of the past in Western America and in Mexico captured horned frogs, kept them in shoe boxes, tied strings to their necks and dragged them around. I was one of those children, but have since repented of my wicked ways.

Horned lizards are endangered now, but not because too many children played with them. There are many reasons offered, among them that man has ruined their habitat by razing and bulldozing or by burning and grazing practices. Pesticides are killing their food supply of harvester ants, known to my generation as "big red aints."

Commercial collectors are gathering them up to offer for sale because they are an oddity. Scientists are studying other reasons for their decline. In 1990 the Horned Lizard Conservation Society was formed in Austin, Texas. I am a card-carrying, lifetime member of this group and joined them for a hunt two summers ago in Amarillo for the purpose of taking blood samples looking for a malaria virus that is suspected of causing the horned lizard's numbers to decline. They gave me the quick course, telling me such things as:

-- Horny toads are lizards and belong to the reptile family. (Reptiles? No way.) -- They depend on their environment to control their body temperature and they live in desert or semi-arid places because they like it hot.
-- Their most obvious characteristic distinguishing them from other lizards is their body shape -- wide, flat, spiny with a crown of horns on the back of their heads and spiny everywhere else except under their bellies.
-- They prefer a diet of ants.
-- They have natural enemies such as hawks, roadrunners, snakes, coyotes and ground squirrels.
-- They can squirt a stream of blood from the corner of their eyes to drive predators away.
-- There is more than one kind of lizard, such as Coast, Short, Flat-tail, Regal, Round-tail, Desert and TCU's Texas horned lizard.
-- And horned lizards are found in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Montana, Washington, the Dakotas, and Canada.

We arrived at the ranch owned and operated by William Seewald and his sister, Nancy, about a mile and a half south of the Canadian River and north of Amarillo. It was hot. I was hotter because I had dressed for safari -- heavy twill pants, T-shirt under another long-sleeved shirt, vest with lots of pockets over the shirt. The pockets contained lip balm, sunscreen, first aid kit, water, camera, notebook, passport, insurance card, number to call in case of emergency, next-of-kin, burial plot information. A bandana was tied around my neck. A thick hat and lace-up hiking boots completed my ensemble. Oh yes, and a walking stick.

It took two people to get me out of the van. Nancy suggested a place that might yield horned lizards. The area was on low ground overgrown with cactus, mesquite, rocks, boulders -- wicked country probably harboring more than Phrynosoma. We had been trained for such work, however, and began to fan out with arms outstretched to gauge how we would cover the distance. When we were in scientific position standing straight and tall and ready for action, William addressed the troops.

"It is July," he said. "Rattlesnakes are shedding and blind and strike at anything. Anything. Maybe you, and you, and you! Keep the grandchildren close to you. Hold them by the hand. Watch out for the cactus, rocks and other wild things that live here. Now, be off and good hunting."

His warnings changed the whole nature of the hunt. At the word, forward, 12 of the 16 broke ranks and charged for open and higher ground. You never saw folks move as fast in your life. I would have been among them except for my clothing and gear. I knew if I didn't come out of that garb and get most of my clothes off, I was going to die.

Three were behind with me and, while they didn't hang back just to rescue me, they did indeed save my life. After stripping down to T-shirt, pants, hat and walking stick, they allowed me to hunt horny toads with them in the normal way; that is, to observe and investigate everything -- plant, insect, animal, bird life, and rocks.

I joined Clare Freeman, treasurer of both the state and national board of HLCS; Bill Brooks, an animal technician in research at UT Austin, and, at the time, live-on-site ranger at the Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve in Austin, and now current president of HLCS; and Leigh Sanders, plucky member, in a slow and deliberate search.

Bill and Leigh poked under everything, but turned up nothing but bugs and some other crawly things identifying them as well as some plants by their scientific names for my benefit. Clare picked up Alibates flint found in the area, some of it showing napping, meaning that it was being shaped for some purpose such as tools or arrowheads.

The Alibates Flint Quarries are unique to Texas occurring in a 10-mile area around Lake Meredith in the Panhandle. Ancestors of Pawnee or Wichita Indians lived in the area and transported the flint to their villages but so did other nomadic groups living hundreds of miles from the site. I began to notice harvester ant beds -- several of them along some rough grooves passing for a roadbed through the ranch.

Speaking in my most clinical, scientific voice, I whined, "Clare, do you reckon the high ground between these ruts might not be a good place to look. At least we could walk on level ground for awhile." She agreed.

Then she found scat -- the term for horned lizard droppings -- and said so.

"Scat!" I had never seen horned toad scat before and it was right interesting. Getting the hang of what it looked like, I began to find more and more indicating there were many horned toads here. All concurred that it was the wrong time of the day for anything to be moving -- even us.

Others were returning from higher ground and using the road to get back to headquarters. They hadn't seen a thing, they said. Dr. Scott Henke, research scientist at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University, Kingsville, and national president of HLCS, was returning from another part of the ranch where he and an assistant had searched.

Neither had they seen anything. I was about to say something and take a step when I spotted a female Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum) showed up. Of course, I didn't know what kind or sex it was until later. I screamed. Most presumed I'd been bitten by a rattler, was having a seizure or religious experience of some sort as I ran through the brush trying to catch that horned toad. Got him, but not without help.

Scott came hurrying with his kit to draw blood, determine the size, kind and weight of the horned lizard, record the data; then we went back to camp for lunch. Although we changed locations, only one more was found that day, yet dozens more were found the next day.

IN SPITE OF the fact that horned frogs are mostly gone from East Texas and their numbers drastically reduced in Central to West Texas, Phrynosoma, in some places, thrive.

In the deep southwest Texas town of Kenedy, the horned lizard population is so large that the town has declared itself the horned toad capitol of the world. As to the findings about a malaria virus, Dr. Henke is still studying the matter.

I only know I did my share and was mighty pleased with myself. For primitive man, long before the word endangered arrived, the most important consideration for any beastie was whether or not it could be eaten, or people could be eaten or hurt by it.

It may have taken awhile on both counts to decide about Phrynosoma. Horns, spines, swelling up, playing dead and ejecting blood from the eyes must have given early man pause. Once food and fear issues are decided, then the folk assign names based on firsthand observation, also a scientific method. In English, Phrynosoma are called horned lizards, horned frogs and horny toads.

In folk-Spanish they are known as torito de lo Virgin, little bull who protects the Virgin, because they charge when facing enemies. In spite of their diminutive size, they are regarded as sacred because they cry tears of blood. Largartito, little alligator, and sapo con quernitos, toad with little horns, are other labels.

The Mexican name is cameleon, perhaps because of its camouflage coloring rather than ability to change colors. The earliest acknowledgement of Phrynosoma appeared in prehistoric art forms of the earliest cultures of the Southwest. The Anasazi, Mogollon, and Hohokam of the desert regions painted images of horned lizards on cave walls of cliff dwellings, and pottery, marked petroglyphs into the surfaces of rocks, sculpted spiny creatures of clay for effigies, carved fetishes of stone and etched seashells with the design -- hundreds of years before Columbus.

The descendants of these prehistoric peoples make use of horned lizards in their stories and legends. The Pima connected horned lizards with the ability to change health and happiness, recognizing them as dangerous if offended or hurt. There must be those who know how to sing the horned lizard songs and apply fetishes to cure illness. A Zuni tale tells of horned lizards that are life-size, can laugh and are sacred.

Ethnographer Frank Hamilton Cushing wrote down the story about a wicked shaman who turned a hunter into a mouse. A benevolent spirit in the form of a coyote took the mouse to the cave of the Great Horned-Lizard Medicine Band where the spell was broken. Some covered him with a sacred blanket while others heated a magic crystal in the fire and, at the right time, removed it touching the mouse with it.

After chanting and dancing the mouse regained his human form as the horned lizards, "chuckling to one another, shrank into the shadows." The Zuni were, and still are, well known for carving the horned toad from mineral and rock and for making use of the design in silver jewelry such as pins.

An old Navajo tale appears in modern, illustrated form complete with a moral. Coyote heard that Horned Toad had a good farm, a clean hogan, worked hard and raised corn and squash. Coyote went over to Horned Toad's house and started to take his things, telling him to get out.

When Horned Toad wouldn't, Coyote ate him, but Horned Toad began to make Coyote uncomfortable, then sick. Finally, he crawled up Coyote's windpipe and choked him to death. "After Coyote was dead, Horned Toad crawled out. He said to the dead Coyote, 'See what happens when you try to take things from weak people!'"

The Navajo also made use of horned toads in sacred sand paintings of the past which were used as part of curing or blessing ceremonies. The Comanche and other Plains tribes consulted horned lizards to ask where buffalo were located, believing that whichever way they ran denoted the direction to take to find the mainstay of Plains' life.

The Spanish noticed horned lizards while on a scientific expedition to the New World. Information about them was published in Rome in 1651, including their extraordinary ability to shoot drops of blood "up to a distance of three paces." Francisco Hernandez, who wrote the treatise, reported that baked horned toad could be pulverized and added to wine or water to cure painful syphilis. (Yes, indeed, baked horned toad and a little Chardonnay, sounds like Southwestern cuisine to me.)

In 1828, a German scientist, Arend Wiegmann, named the genus. Meriwether Lewis noticed them on that famous expedition in 1804. He questioned the French name of "prairie buffalo" which linked the buffalo to the horned lizard because of the horns and humping of the back in a posture of defense. Lewis sent a specimen back to Thomas Jefferson who had it placed in the first natural history museum. Charles Girard, who with others explored the Great Salt Lake, published a report in 1851 describing them.

And, of course, TCU selected the horned frog as its mascot and totem not only because so many of them roamed Thorp Spring, the original site of the University, but also because the critter was tough, tenacious, and willing to tackle enemies bigger than they even if bluffing and looking mean were their only defenses.

But then you knew that already, didn't you? I am a folklorist and a writer, not a scientist, obviously, but the bond between folklore and science is solid and fortunate is the respect on both sides.

It may be that in time to come, the only evidence remaining of my Horned Frogs and yours will be the lore, tales, songs and stories gathered by folklorists; in images preserved in photography, art, silver, stone and sand; in scientific studies and information; or in the prophetic and quicksilver words of a Wade Sherbrooke:

We find horned lizards engaging both our curiosity and imagination. . . . Time and a place for reflection are indispensable if we are going to see that the mother of all life twinkles in the eyes of horned lizards too. For the story of horned lizards is not an isolated one. Are they not, like us, but another color in the rainbow of life shining out of the past through the prism of time, and onward into the unknown future?

Folklorist and writer Joyce Gibson Roach '58 lives in Keller and is an adjunct lecturer at TCU. For further reading about the horned frog, she recommends the following books: Wade C. Sherbrooke, Unique Reptiles of Western North America, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1981; William Morgan, collector, Navajo Coyote Tales, Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1988; Wallace and Hoebel, The Comanches, Lords of the South Plains, Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1952; Jane Manaster, Horned Lizards, UT Press, 1997; John Q. Anderson, 'And Horns on the Toads,' Texas Folklore Publication XXIX, And Horns on the Toads, ed. Boatright, Hudson, Maxwell, Dallas SMU Press, 1959, pp. 3-13.

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