Texas horned lizard re-establishes on Sullivan’s Island

SULLIVAN’S ISLAND — Mom was in the kitchen when 6-year-old Wylly Molten called out that he just saw a spiky lizard in the garden outside.

OK, spikes, Emily Molten was thinking, he’s got a caterpillar. Then he showed it to her.

“Mommy screamed,” Wylly said. A Texas horned lizard will have that effect on you.

Yep, the reptile commonly known as the horny toad has made itself at home again on Sullivan’s Island, two decades after the creatures were thought to have been wiped out by overwash during Hurricane Hugo. Wylly is among any number of islanders who are coming across them.

And the critter is a scream. Spines stick like antlers from its wedged head, behind a spike of spine between two fierce black eyes. Its back is pocked and lined with spines.

As if that weren’t fiendish enough, the lizard can puff itself up to stick the spines out farther, and squirt blood from its eyes.

The palm-sized horny toad is so bizarre that people, naturally, love it. And it’s docile enough that it is sold as a pet.

“Such a cool little creature,” Emily Molten said.

“It really is like a dinosaur,” said Beezer Molten, her husband.

Steve Bennett, S.C. Department of Natural Resources herpetologist, is quick to point out the lizards don’t belong on Sullivan’s Island.

They are one of those invasives, species introduced from somewhere else, that can overtake native species. He’d rather they weren’t there.

But, yeah, he likes them too, he admits.

These guys don’t seem to be going anywhere. The Southwest desert reptiles turned up on the Lowcountry barrier island in the 1940s. The culprit is suspected to be World War II.

Horny toads are popular pets in Texas, and service people stationed on the island likely brought a few along to remind them of home.

The lizards slipped off into the sandy, desert-like environs and quickly had the run of the place, as well as Isle of Palms nearby.

Then came Hugo. The monstrous 1989 hurricane swept the island under more than 10 feet of storm surge. A desert critter didn’t have much chance. After the storm, the lizards were among a number of species that had disappeared.

But, “if you have one or two survivors, that’s all you need to restart a population,” Bennett said. “Apparently some survived.”

So far, state wildlife biologists take a leave-and-let-be position on the lizard, because it doesn’t seem to be disrupting native species. Biologists have whole habitats full of disruptive invasives to deal with.

Lucky for Wylly. He wanted to keep that first horned lizard he caught for a pet of his own. But it eats ants, not the sort of pet food that is easy to provide.

So Mom made a deal. If Wylly would release the lizard, she’d get him something else.

“A leopard gecko,” Wylly said. Pretty cool.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.