The research team monitored the lizards for about five weeks before fully releasing the lizards into the nearly 40-acre natural reserve, where they have since been tracked on a weekly basis. Another batch of lizards to be raised at the OKC Zoo, which will consist of lizards hatched in 2021 and 2022, is scheduled to be returned to Tinker Air Force Base in the summer of 2023.
“We’ve learned a lot in this first stage of the trial,” Eliades said. “Not only about how to care for the lizards in the lab – it's not legal to keep them as pets, and trust me, they would make for bad pets – but we’ve also learned a lot about how to conduct future releases.
“By staging the releases with different age classes in each release, we will be able to determine how age and body size may impact survivorship in the wild. That will help us know if we should raise the lizards for two years, or if they’re better off after a one-year head start.”
Halfway in, this trial has already provided insight into the reintroduction viability of a lizard head start program.
“Prior attempts to establish new, or re-establish former, Texas horned lizard populations have proven challenging,” said Mark Howery, senior wildlife biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “But this trial allows us to test the feasibility of a new technique for augmenting populations or potentially moving animals between existing populations, and to assess the costs and manpower requirements of running a small head start program. If this technique proves successful, it could provide a mechanism for augmenting existing populations and potentially reduce the risk of inbreeding in small isolated populations.
“Tinker Air Force Base is the perfect location for this trial,” Howery said. “It really is a one-of-a-kind scenario that wouldn’t be possible without the initial partnerships between Tinker Air Force Base, the University of Oklahoma, and the Oklahoma City Zoo.
“The base’s natural resources office has invested so much time and energy into this unique population; the researchers at OU were already monitoring the lizards on the base’s reserves; and team members from the Oklahoma City Zoo were willing to dedicate their expertise and space for the Lizard Lab. If any of those pieces was missing, none of this would be possible.”
This project may be giving researchers with the proper permits a unique look into the lives of Texas horned lizards, but the public still plays a significant role in conservation efforts for the species. By reducing pesticide use and maintaining native vegetation, landowners can provide habitat and food for these special reptiles as well as other species of wildlife. And anyone can share recent lizard sightings with the Wildlife Department. Details like the location of the sighting, number and ages of individuals observed, and a photograph can help biologists monitor the pulse of the state’s populations.
Initial funding for this project was provided by the National Science Foundation, Sam Noble Museum at the University of Oklahoma, and the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden. Additional support has been provided by State Wildlife Grant F20AF10405 through the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.