Saving the ‘Horny Toads’: A year long study at the OKC Zoo is raising them

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Sam Eliades has been checking this incubator for weeks. Within the past few days, he's found success.

"We have one head sticking out, and one other that looks like it could hatch any second," says researcher Sam Eliades.

Eliades has baby Texas Horned Lizards looking back at him.

"We have 26 lizards out already and 10 more to go."

He and several other herpetologists at the Oklahoma City Zoo collected 36 eggs from clutches at a prairie preserve on Tinker Air Force Base property.

All of this is part of a year-long study commissioned by the National Science Foundation.

"There's a lot we're trying to learn, specifically about horned lizard growth rates," he said.

If all eggs hatch successfully, Eliades will raise them for a year, through their first hibernation.

He'll monitor their progress, even monitoring their gut bacteria for good and bad germs.

"What good and bad bacteria may be entering the lizards in our care and what good and bad bacteria might be in horned lizards out in the wild," Eliades explains.

The last clutch of eggs hasn't peeked out yet but the hatchlings are healthy and active.

Eliades makes sure they can drink a little water off the sides of their containers.

"It also helps keep the humidity up," he says. "It does tend to be a little dry in this room."

He even feeds them a few fruit flies to see if they'll bite.

"Well they're looking," he observes.

Grown-up 'horny toads' eat mostly harvester ants, plus some termites and grasshoppers.

But little is known about these creatures when they're small.

"Are you getting attached to these little guys?" asks a lab visitor.

"Yes, absolutely," answers Eliades. "It's really cool to actually have lizards out to work with."

In a year, Eliades' lizards will go back to the Tinker refuge where their eggs were gathered, bolstering an Oklahoma population that desperately needs the numbers, and adding to the knowledge of how to keep these little guys with us.

The Oklahoma City Zoo's Lizard Lab isn't accessible to regular visitors but the public can help through the Roundup for Conservation program there.

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