On the Search for the Horned Lizard of Griffith Park

Local biologist Dan Cooper has been looking for the horned lizard in Griffith Park for the better part of three years now. There was a time when spotting them was a usual occurrence—these days, not so much. "Ask anyone over 40 who grew up here, and they'll tell you about catching 'horny toads' in the wash near their house," he explained. "My dad would catch them in North Hollywood along what would become the 170 freeway."

It was in the 1980s when they started to disappear from the area due to development. "We lost a lot of open-country species around town as big box stores and trucking distribution warehouses took up all the vacant lots where you might have once had relict native vegetation, or at least sandy soil for the lizards to hide in," said Cooper, who is working on the Griffith Park Wildlife Management Plan. The thorny looking lizards need to bury themselves in loose sand and have a good ecological relationship with native harvester ants (the big red ones), which have been overrun by the non-native Argentine ants—the ones we usually find in our kitchens.

Although it was a hard find, Cooper kept on hearing from city workers in the park that they occasionally would see the lizard. So it became his personal mission. Finally, the day came a few weeks ago while surveying plants on Cahuenga Peak, he saw one out the corner of his eye. He excitedly grabbed, took a few shots and let it go.

The next day came another sighting, this time with avid hiker and runner Gerry Hans who was on a trail in area directly east of Hollywood sign, above Mulholland Trail. "I was shocked to the point of almost not believing my eyes. I saw him from a pretty good distance," he said, describing how he stood still and quietly switched camera lenses to take the above photos. "Surprisingly, he did cooperate, and I actually was able to watch him for quite a while. He disappeared in a flash, though, as he buried himself under shallow loose dirt, a behavior for which this species is known."

Hans, who happens to be on the Griffith Park Master Plan Working Group, describes the park as "a remarkable place with diverse micro-habitats that produce great biodiversity in both plants and animals." A trail runner for 20 years--he owns a running company--he's now slowed down. "I find hiking with a camera is really gratifying."

The lizard is not on any endangered species lists, but the California Department of Fish & Game consider it as a Species of Special Concern and the U.S. Forest Service puts it in their sensitive category.

"You may not care for a spiny, ugly lizard on a hill you'll never climb," Cooper said when ask why Angelenos should care about their existence and home. "But you can/should appreciate that it's a little, irreplaceable part of an ecosystem that was here long before you were, and which would be that much more degraded by its loss."