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Great Horny Toads! A rare Coast Horned Lizard sighting

May 24, 2011

Yosemite Sam said it first: “Great Horny Toads!”

Then I said it yesterday, when I was fortunate enough to come across one while hiking up the Little Sycamore Trail in the South Coast Wilderness yesterday afternoon.

Since I didn’t approach it (I was too busy taking pictures), it did not shoot blood out of its eyes at me. Yes. They do this when threatened.

These spiky critters used to be common in Southern California, but aren’t any more (does that sound like a familiar story?). Their diet main-stay–those big ol’ harvester ants that make big ol’ anthills along our trails–are being forced out by non-native Argentine ants. While much smaller, Argentive ants are more aggressive, and have been seen literally tearing the harvester ants into pieces to carry back to their nests.

(Argentine ants are the black ants that invade your garden and kitchen throughout the year.)

More people and irrigated gardens on the edges of wildlands = more non-native Argentine ants  in those gardens and spreading into the wildlands = fewer native harvester ants = fewer coast horned lizards.

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen a “horny toad” out on the trail . . . so having one stay still long enough for me to photograph it was a bonus to an already-stellar outing in some really lush chaparral, with lots of flowers still blooming away: white everlasting, golden yarrow, red penstemon, monkey flower in all kinds of orange-ish reddish pastels, fringed Indian pinks (not pink at all!). Here’s a mariposa lily swaying in the ridge-top breeze:

Along with so many flowers to admire, there were lots of galls growing in the scrub oak. (They look like out-of-place Christmas tree ornaments.)

An apple? No–an apple-like gall.

Here’s another type of gall growing on the bottom of a black sage leaf:

Galls are like little party rooms for all kinds of insects, mainly wasps. There’s the original wasp that “stings” the plant and causes the gall (a process that remains a mystery to scientists). There’s the parasitoids who . . . yep . . . parasitize the original wasps, and then there’s the inquilines–insects who use the gall as a place to hang out and maybe raise their kids, but don’t interact with the other insects.

The above is my understanding of galls, gleaned (all mistakes are due to my faulty memory) from a fascinating presentation by Dr. Peter Bryant of UCI (and host of the wonderful web site Natural History of Orange County); he was guest speaker  earlier this year for a California Native Plant Society-Orange County Chapter monthly meeting.

Dr. Bryant is now looking for interested back-country wanderers to collaborate with him on a project to find out more about our galls in Orange County . . . contact him at pjbryant (the symbol @) uci.edu.

One last image–yesterday seemed to be a good day to ride the afternoon thermals, and a good day to vicariously glide high and low over the ridges and along the lush chaparral-covered slopes. Ride on, Turkey Vulture!

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