Phrynosoma mcallii Flat-tailed Horned Lizard
Also known as:
Flat-tail Horned Lizard
Coachella Valley Preserve, Riverside County, CaliforniaJuly 3, 2006
Flat-tailed Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma mcallii) Flat-tailed Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma mcallii) Flat-tailed Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma mcallii) Flat-tailed Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma mcallii)
Flat-tailed Horned Lizards are in the unfortunate position of having the combination of a small range and specialized habitat needs. Much of their historic range has been covered with desert resorts, golf courses, palm groves, and the accidentally-created Salton Sea. A good chunk of what's left is used for off-road vehicle recreation.

I had an opportunity to tag along with Dr. Cameron Barrows one morning as he walked a transect line through flat-tail habitat in the Coachella Valley Preserve. Dr. Barrows is among other things the manager for this preserve, and is an expert on tracking all the different inhabitants. On the morning I joined him, the sand was criss-crossed with a zillion tracks from rodent activity the night before, because it hadn't been windy enough to wash them away. Dr. Barrows warned me that our chances of finding flat-tails would be much better on the morning after a windy night, but I was only in the area for that one morning, so off we went. Also, at this hot time of year, the activity period for these lizards is only a couple of hours long, so if you can't find them by about 9 AM, you're pretty much out of luck.

Fortunately, it took the eagle eyes of Dr. Barrows only about twenty minutes to find what seemed to be fresh flat-tailed horned lizard tracks among all the rodent tracks, fringe-toed lizard tracks, beetle tracks, etc. Once he was confident that the tracks were fresh, we stopped moving and just scanned the ground around us, looking for a well-camouflaged lizard shape. The first photo above shows my approximate field of view when I spotted the lurking lizard. The second photo is the same lizard in the same place. It let my camera approach to a few inches away before it finally moved; the third photo is the same lizard again, after it had shuffled to a more open spot.

While I was taking my time photographing my first flat-tailed horned lizard, Dr. Barrows was continuing his transect walk to record every type of track he could count. Along the way, he recognized another fresh-looking set of horned lizard tracks. I caught up and we both scanned the nearby area until Dr. Barrows let out a laugh as he spotted the lizard seen in the fourth photo above. Dr. Barrows told me that after a flat-tail gets its morning fill of ants, it often will bury itself in a thin layer of sand with only the head showing. This allows it to be well-hidden from predators, while simultaneously staying nice and warm in order to digest its breakfast as quickly as possible.

I am indebted to Dr. Barrows for letting me tag along with him, and of course for his superior horned-lizard-locating skills. I am also indebted to my friend Fred Harer for putting me into contact with Dr. Barrows in the first place.

Borrego Springs, San Diego County, CaliforniaMay 4, 2019
Flat-tailed Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma mcallii) Flat-tailed Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma mcallii)
Finally, thirteen years later, I found one of these excellent lizards by myself. I walked around a lot of sandy desert territory to do so.
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