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  • Writer's pictureIsaac yelchin

The Horned Lizard

The Horned lizard is one of the most prehistoric looking and most fascinating creatures we have living in the Santa Monica Mountains and the greater deserted areas of California. These fabulous reptiles look like they came straight out of the Triassic period 215 million years ago. However, they were shrunk significantly from their massive dinosaur ancestors, and now a fully grown adult like you see below, is at most five inches.

Talk about camouflage! Healthy looking adult Horned lizard found in Ojai

Although much smaller than the brachiosaurus of days past, his armored body is still very real, and very tough. The spines on the back of his head are sharp, and make a great defense against snakes, hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, and his other predators. The spikes on the back of the head and the general thick sharp spines all along his back provide good protection, but they hide his greatest weakness.

Young Horned lizard found in Topanga Canyon featuring a spiky back!

The belly of this beautiful beast is smooth and soft, and isn’t protected at all. The scales there are thin and flattened. They also feature a gorgeous spotted patterning that may not have a purpose outside of beauty. The softness of these scales however does have an important function.

Same young individual from Topanga detailing the soft underbelly.

Without the smooth scales all facing the same direction the Horned lizard would struggle greatly to move around his environment. Almost all reptiles, from snakes to crocodiles have this same quality of the scales covering their undersides. The top scales are rough and provide protection from above, while the bottom scales are smooth and allow the reptiles to move easily over their terrain. If they had the spines and spikes on the bottom too they would constantly be getting snagged in rocks or sticks, and prevent easy movement.

I love how they always look so grumpy!

If you get a chance to see the belly of a reptile you will almost always see this same feature. Interestingly this applies to other animals too, armadillos, or porcupines have their defense on their backs and leave their bellies unprotected. It aids movement like we discussed, and may also play a role in mating. As the female would be very upset if she received a porcupine spike in the wrong place!

This same young lizard from Topanga was at most two inches long, and a few months old.

The horned lizard also uses these spikes on its back for camouflage and hunting purposes It is almost impossible to spot one of these lizards when they are in full camouflage mode. They bury themselves underneath the desert sand so that just their spiky head sticks out. This way they look like a little rock, or burr, on the ground and are practically invisible.

Hiding in plain sight in Ojai.

This benefits them both ways as they hide from predators, and excited scientists, while also being completely hidden from their prey. They will bury themselves in this way in the desert sand right next to a trail of ants, their favorite food. Then they wait and blend into the background, so when the next unlucky ant passes by, they open their mouths and crunch down on lunch.

These creatures are uncommon due to human development and climate change shrinking the environments they are able to thrive in. However, they have been making a comeback in interesting ways, for example a young one was seen in front of Lowes hardware, adapting to the habitat available. In some ways this is sad but in others it is fascinating to witness how quickly and with such tenacity wildlife is able to adapt to changing conditions.

Found right in front of Lowes hardware!

Keep your eyes out for any “rocks” that may move while you are hiking, because they may just be a Horned lizard! Let us know in the comments what your favorite southern California reptile is, and if/where you have seen any of these Horned lizards!

Photos of Horned lizards from Topanga and Ojai taken by Isaac Yelchin. Lowes Horned lizard photo taken by Alex Havasi.

Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions.

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