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We Talked to an Ecologist About the Ethics of Owning a Horned Lizard

And the consequences of putting them in a mech suit.

On Tuesday, I wrote a post about a seemingly harmless video where a lizard rides atop a mech suit. I guessed the reptile was a bearded dragon, but an eagle-eyed reader suggested on Facebook that it was in fact a "horny toad," a.k.a. horned toad, a.k.a. horned lizard. (It's called a toad even though it is definitely a lizard.) We wanted to be sure of things before we issued a correction, so I emailed wildlife ecologist, research professor, and reptile enthusiast Dr. David Steen to clear up the matter.

He told me the creature in the video is indeed a horned lizard, and added that it seemed to be showing signs of distress. I felt guilty for being so flippant about the little dude's predicament, so let's clear the air: do not own a horned lizard as a pet, and especially do not put it in a mech suit. (Don't put a bearded dragon in a mech suit, either.)

MOTHERBOARD: First, could you give a little expert background on the two species? It seems they're easily confused—how can one tell them apart?

David Steen: One of the big differences between horned toads and bearded [dragons] is that they come from completely different parts of the world. Bearded dragons come from Australia and horned toads live in North America. Despite looking superficially similar, they are not actually closely related, they've just evolved to survive in similar kinds of habitats, particularly arid regions.

Bearded dragons are a group of eight different species that make up the genus Pogona. Horned lizards, which are also sometimes called horny or horned toads, are a group of over a dozen lizards within the Phrynosoma genus. Bearded dragons are generally larger and more elongate than horned lizards, which appear relatively squat. Horned lizards also have a relatively small head compared to bearded dragons.

I know bearded dragons make pretty good pets, but I've never heard of someone keeping a horned lizard as a pet. Are they responsive to being "domesticated?"

Horned lizards don't make good pets because they typically have a very specific diet: ants.

It seems some people just snatch them up out of the wild and take them home. Speaking as a scientist, what are the ecological implications and consequences of doing that?

I never recommend collecting wild animals as pets. This is particularly true for many reptiles and amphibians.

The horny toad in a mech suit. Steen noted that "the poor thing is all puffed up; this is one of their defensive strategies so the animal must be feeling threatened, which is understandable given the strange situation it has found itself in. I hope the video doesn't encourage others to set up their own pet reptiles into various Jaegers, they won't like it."

In many areas, illegal or unregulated collecting of wild reptiles and amphibians is an important contributor to population declines. Some species of horned lizards are increasingly rare and we should focus on making sure their wild populations are secure. In most cases the primary cause of this rarity is habitat loss but collecting can contribute to the problem.

What do you think in general of reptiles being kept as pets, versus animals like dogs which have actually sought human companionship over hundreds of years?

I don't own any pets, but when I was young one of my favorite pastimes was walking through nearby streams and forests looking for reptiles and amphibians. I was not allowed to keep any of these animals as pets, but I could hold them in a tank for a week or two before releasing them where I found them. I think that might be a good compromise that allows kids to learn more about their local wildlife without necessarily causing them any problems. Folks should learn the laws and regulations of their state, however. Today, I much prefer to appreciate animals in their natural environments and I encourage others to do the same.

What happens to the health of a lizard when they're stressed out like this one is? Can it have permanent effects?

Although I do not have much experience with reptile physiology, I know many medical doctors encourage us all to manage stress in healthy ways or risk long-term problems down the road.

Good point.

Follow David on Twitter at @AlongsideWild and/or check out his website.