Desert Horned Lizard

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Species group:

Other common names: Horned Toad; Horny Toad

Scientific name: Phrynosoma platyrhinos

The basics:
Desert Horned Lizards (DHL), aka horny toads are truly fun to keep and watch. They have a unique burrowing technique, stay small, and colonize readily.

The Desert Horned Lizard is native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, where they are desert ground dwellers. Horny Toads burrow into loose sand by wiggling back and forth while throwing sand over their backs using the spines down the sides of their torso. This is a quick process, taking less than 20 seconds for him to become invisible. Many reptile keepers refuse to use sand as substrate due to the danger of ingestion, but these creatures need sand to feel secure.

Appearance / health:
Desert Horned Lizards are dime sized at hatching, and 4-4.5 inches snout to tail tip when mature. The Desert Horned Lizard has an oval-shaped flattened body. The color of the Desert Horned Lizard depends on its location. If they are in desert sand the color markings range from pale tan to medium brownish red. The ones that are from volcanic sand are mostly black with dark brown marks along their back.

Phrynosoma platyrhinos have one row of spiny scales along the sides of the body and neck. They also have pointed scales on the back. The horns at the back of the neck are longer than wide at the base.

Behavior / temperament:
Desert Horned Lizards are diurnal. When resting or sleeping, they dig themselves into the sand to cover their bodies leaving the top of the head and eyes above ground. They are shy and will immediately dash into hiding when startled. When provoked or threatened, they hiss. When handled, they inflate their bodies to look bigger and poke the handler with their horns. These lizards do not squirt “blood” from their eyes as some other Horned Lizards do.

Desert Horned Lizards are best housed in a dry, terrestrial type terrarium decorated with stones, and driftwood or dried root.

Your DHL will need a habitat that emulates their natural environment as much as possible. Temps, lighting, humidity and substrate must mimic the lowland desert.

Desert UVB is a necessity. Daytime temps should be 120 for basking with a gradient across the habitat down to 85. Night temps can go down to about 70, but below 65 will cause the lizards to begin to hibernate. I like Exo Terra’s Solar Glo all-in-one, but there are many on the market now.

A 40-gallon low tank works well for a colony of one male to 3 females. You will need a couple of hides, and about 5 inches of sand substrate. Garden sand or play sand works fine. You can use plastic plants in the habitat if you want to. These guys don’t try to eat plants. They are true carnivores.

Desert Horned Lizards must have ants to survive. Crickets and other insects do not have the Formic Acid that is a nutritional requirement of Horny Toads. The ants they feast on are Harvester Ants. This is a large ant, usually red, but can be found in black or a combination of the two colors. You can purchase them online for about $20.00 per thousand.

When feeding, make sure none remain once the lizard has stopped eating. They will attack and, in large numbers, even kill the Horned Lizard. In the wild the reptile hides in the sand and laps them up as they come wandering by. If they spy the lizard and attack, he runs away. In a tank this option of escape is not available.

Refrigerate your ants in a jar in the warmest part of your fridge, usually the door or bottom. They will go into hibernation. They will look dead, but they aren’t. Shake a few ants into the habitat at a time. As the ants wake up and wiggle, the lizards will eat them.

Keep the ants in the fridge for 10 days, then take the jar out and let them wake up. Put a few drops of water into the jar and let them hydrate. After about and hour you can put them back in the fridge for another 10 days. I have kept them for over a month using this method. Be careful – the Harvester Ant’s bite is very painful.

The DHL will not drink from standing water. Many keepers use a mister, but I like to hand spray once a day in the evening. This gives me an opportunity to be confident that they are drinking their fill. They lift their head, close their eyes and suck in the droplets as they run to their mouths. Once they are finished, they will run from the water to a hide.

Desert Horned Lizards made in the spring and deposit 2-15 eggs in June or July. The eggs incubate for 50-60 days. Females often have two clutches per year.


zoo collections, appearance


live ants, captivity, primarily harvester ants


Eastern Oklahoma, interesting defense mechanisms, horny toads, Arizona basin, eyes, West Texas

Helpful Desert Horned Lizard Review

Desert Horned Lizard

From jarrodr Apr 18 2014 2:16PM


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