Photo: Short-horned lizard

Short-horned lizards have an array of defenses to dissuade would-be predators, including a spike-covered exterior and the ability in some species to shoot blood from their eyes.

Photograph courtesy Gary M. Stolz/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service


Map: Horned toad range

Horned Toad (Short-Horned Lizard) Range

Fast Facts

2.5 to 6 in. (6.4 to 15.2 cm)
Group name:
Did you know?
Some species of short-horned lizards are capable of squirting blood from the corners of their eyes when attacked.
Size relative to a tea cup:
Illustration: Horned toad compared with tea cup

The short-horned lizard is often referred to as a “horned toad” or “horny toad” because its squat, flattened shape and short, blunt snout give it a toad-ish look. There are over a dozen recognized species found in the deserts and semi-arid environments of North and Central America, from southern Canada to Guatemala.

Species are distinguishable by the formidable crown of horns adorning their head and the numerous spines across their back. Their coloring can be yellowish, gray, or reddish-brown depending on the environment they inhabit, and, combined with their shape, affords them considerable camouflage on the surface. They feed primarily on ants, waiting for one to unsuspectingly crawl by before snapping it in and swallowing it whole. They are also known to eat grasshoppers, beetles, and spiders.

Despite their spiky features, short-horned lizards are preyed upon by a number of creatures, including hawks, roadrunners, snakes, lizards, dogs, wolves, and coyotes. Consequently, beyond their natural camouflage, they have adapted a pair of remarkable talents. In order to ward off hungry predators, short-horned lizards are capable of inflating their bodies up to twice their size, resembling a spiny balloon. And if this proves insufficient, some species employ one of the animal kingdom’s most bizarre defensive mechanisms: They shoot blood from their eyes.

The ominous squirting blood emanates from ducts in the corners of their eyes and can travel a distance of up to three feet (one meter). It’s meant to confuse would-be predators, but also contains a chemical that is noxious to dogs, wolves, and coyotes.

Over recent decades short-horn lizard populations have been in decline throughout their range. Destruction of their native habitat, efforts to eradicate ants—their staple food—and the pet trade have all contributed to this.

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