Monday, October 13, 2014

Is That Lizard Possessed!? (A Guest Post)

By Tawny Liebe

Image from Chuck Heston on Flickr.
A creature straight from the depths of hell… or at least as close as you can get on this planet. The Texas horned lizard or “horny toad” is found in the deserts of the southwest United States and has an unusual adaptation to deter predation exclusively from a few species of canines. When threatened by coyotes, foxes, and dogs, the horned lizard squirts blood from its eyes to hit targets up to three feet away! A total of six species of horned lizard have been proven to respond this way to canine attack, while none have responded this way to other predators, such as the grasshopper mouse or the roadrunner. So what is the deal? How do they do this and how does it work as predator defense?

Veins have one-way valves
to prevent backflow.
Drawing by Tawny Liebe.

Before we get to that, there are a few things you need to know. First of all, the circulatory system includes a network of arteries and veins. Arteries carry blood full of oxygen to body tissues while veins carry blood that lacks oxygen from the rest of the body back to the heart. This means that for the blood, in someone’s foot for instance, to get all the way back to the heart through the veins, the blood must work against gravity. When you (or this lizard or many other species) move, blood is propelled from one chamber in the vein to the next until it reaches the heart. The blood is prevented from flowing back into the previous chamber by one-way valves, causing the blood to pool.

In order to squirt blood from their eyes, horned lizards manipulate the network of veins in their head so that they build up pressure, like a volcano getting ready to blow. By constricting a pair of throat muscles unique to reptiles, they effectively close their jugular veins and increase the blood pressure in their head. This is thought to be enhanced by another pair of muscles between the jugular veins and the eyes that help increase the blood pressure in the head even further, causing the blood to move into the sinuses of the eyes. The pressure continues to build until the blood breaks through the wall of the eye socket into the eyelids where it is forced into the tear duct and erupts like a Mentos in a Coke bottle all over whatever is chomping at the poor little lizard.

As if these lizards couldn’t get any more amazing, recent studies have shown that it is actually a compound in their blood that canines don’t like. Scientists have also found that this chemical is in their circulating blood, not just the blood that is squirted from their eye, rejecting an earlier hypothesis that the chemical is picked up in the tear duct. To top off all of this awesomeness, the chemical may be acquired through its main food source- harvester ants, which are venomous. These ants aren’t actually a requirement of the horned lizard’s diet and yet they are specialized to eat them. The horned lizard’s blood plasma binds to the venom, which neutralizes its toxicity and the resulting compound may be what deters these canines.

Now that we know how horned lizards are capable of this type of defense and how they most likely make their blood so undesirable, what is it about this chemical that is so appalling to these predators? It appears that the target area of the blood is the mouth since the horned lizard only squirts the blood when the canine begins to bite down on its head. This suggests that it may be the taste of the blood that prevents the horned lizard from becoming that coyote’s tasty snack.

The horned lizard’s ability to squirt blood at canines to prevent their untimely death is truly amazing and complex and there is still much to learn about it. Their ability makes me wonder how many other cool anti-predator adaptations there are out there in the animal and even the plant kingdom! Below is a video that will allow you to appreciate the full effect of this awesome defense strategy, enjoy!




References:

Heath, J.E. 1966. Venous shunts in the cephalic sinuses of horned lizards. Physiological Zoology 39(1): 30-35.Middendorf, G.A. and Sherbrooke, W.C. 1992. Canid elicitation of blood-squirting in a horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum). Copeia 1992(2): 519-527.

Middendorf, G.A. and Sherbrooke, W.C. 1992. Canid elicitation of blood-squirting in a horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum). Copeia 1992(2): 519-527.

Middendorf, G.A. et. al. 2001. Comparison of blood squirted from the circumorbital sinus and systemic blood in a horned lizard, Phyrnosoma cornutum. The Southwestern Naturalist 46(3): 384-387.

Middendorf, G.A. and Sherbrooke, W.C. 2004. Responses of kit foxes (Vulpes macrotis) to antipredator blood-squirting and blood of Texas horned lizards (Phrynosoma cornutum). Copeia 2004(3): 652-658.

Sherbrooke, W.C. 1992. Chiricahua Mountains Research Symposium. Horny “toad” tales from the Chiricahua mountains as, told by a biologist. Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, Tuscon, AZ. 78-80.

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