HARLINGEN, Texas — With sharp horns protruding menacingly from its head, and a body covered in scaly spikes, the Texas Horned lizard appears rather fierce. But the horny toad, as many affectionately know it, is quite docile.

The official state reptile was once found throughout much of Texas, but they are now recognized as a threatened species and have disappeared from most of their former haunts due to a variety of factors.

They were once so numerous that they were captured by the thousands and lost to the pet trade. By the time the state legislature passed a law in 1967 making it illegal to collect them the popular reptiles were already on a steep decline.

Habitat destruction has also played a role in their demise, and many a horny toad has been flattened on Texas roadways. The widespread use of pesticides has drastically reduced the reptiles’ main food source harvester ants, while the introduction of nonnative fire ants has also been extremely harmful, as stinging swarms can attack and kill the lizards.

These fascinating creatures are very well adapted to the arid parts of the state, and rarely lap up water, but rather absorb moisture, particularly morning dew, thru their skin.

While the curious critters will never be as numerous as they once were, they continue to thrive on tracts of protected lands in the Rio Grande Valley where they are provided sufficient undisturbed habitat and access to their favorite food source.

Perhaps, the best place to see Texas Horned lizards in the Rio Grande Valley is Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. You can frequently spot them as you hike or bike around the big lake on the refuge’s west side.