What is a horned frog? Why is it TCU’s mascot? Get to know the state reptile of Texas

The horned frog has been TCU’s mascot since 1897. It has been the Texas state reptile since 1992. And although the funky, fierce-looking brown critter’s crown of horns can look intimidating — not to mention the fact that when agitated, it can shoot blood from its eyes — we Texans are rather fond of them.

As TCU basketball makes history with its March Madness run in the 2022 NCAA Tournament, here’s a little background on the horned frogs — which are real animals, but actually not a frog at all.

[MORE: TCU Frogs vs. Arizona basketball: March Madness lineups, TV, time, score, prediction]

TCU players react on the bench next to cheerleaders during the first half of a first-round NCAA college basketball tournament game against Seton Hall, Friday, March 18, 2022, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
TCU players react on the bench next to cheerleaders during the first half of a first-round NCAA college basketball tournament game against Seton Hall, Friday, March 18, 2022, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

What is a horned frog?

Technically, the TCU mascot is the Texas horned lizard, or Phrynosoma cornutum, and is a reptile.

The common name comes from the horns on their heads, which can vary among species. People also call them horned toads and horny toads, but they’re actually not amphibians like other toads. The reptiles have scales and claws, and they raise their young on land, according to Texas Parks & Wildlife. They grow to 3.5 to 6 inches.

A Texas horned lizard hatchling rests in a plastic container after being tagged on Sept. 15, 2021, at the Fort Worth Zoo.
A Texas horned lizard hatchling rests in a plastic container after being tagged on Sept. 15, 2021, at the Fort Worth Zoo.

Where do horned frogs live?

The species can be found throughout the West including Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico, but your chances of encountering them in the wild aren’t super high. That’s because they are considered a threatened species in Texas. Lawmakers first mandated the protection of the species in 1967, citing population depletion. The population is still threatened by urbanization, insecticides and non-native fire ants that feast on the eggs and babies.

But you can get a look at the critters at the Fort Worth Zoo, which is one of the only zoos in the country to successfully breed them. The program that began in 2001 is a partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife and TCU.

The Fort Worth Zoo releases the horned frogs it raises into the Mason Mountain Wildlife Management Area. Last fall, the team released its 1,000th captive-born Texas horned lizard. The team uses transmitter tags to monitor their success in the wild to determine the feasibility of reintroducing the lizards where they once were plentiful.

Diane Barber, curator of ectotherms at the Fort Worth Zoo, tags captive-raised Texas horned lizard hatchling on Sept. 15, 2021, in preparation for their release into the wild.
Diane Barber, curator of ectotherms at the Fort Worth Zoo, tags captive-raised Texas horned lizard hatchling on Sept. 15, 2021, in preparation for their release into the wild.

Why is TCU’s mascot the horned frog?

TCU, whose men’s basketball team improved to 6-8 all-time in NCAA Tournament with Friday’s 69-42 victory over Seton Hall, has never won multiple games in the Tournament. TCU’s best finish was in 1968 when it reached the finals (Elite Eight) of the Midwest Regional. That year’s tournament had 23 schools.

How did TCU become the Frogs? The critter was adopted as the official mascot in 1897 because of it being a typical Texas sight. But the name Frogs almost wasn’t selected, the Star-Telegram reported in 2000. It was one of two final choices, the other being the TCU Cactus. At that time, however, the University of Texas was known as the Cactus, so TCU opted for Horned Frogs.

David Stein, director of full-time graduate recruiting and admissions at TCU, wrote in a 2019 blog post that the 1897 yearbook staff was looking to name its annual. “Football began at the university the year before, and legend has it that the football field was covered in the small-but-mighty horned lizards. It seemed a perfect match.”

In this photo published Nov. 17, 1940, Texas Christian University player Derrell Palmer receiving encouragement from his father, Edd Palmer, and members of his high school band from Albany, Texas, twirlers Jo Nell Stanley (left) and Joyce Wade.
In this photo published Nov. 17, 1940, Texas Christian University player Derrell Palmer receiving encouragement from his father, Edd Palmer, and members of his high school band from Albany, Texas, twirlers Jo Nell Stanley (left) and Joyce Wade.

Can I have a horned frog as a pet?

Nope. It is illegal to collect the reptiles for keeping as pets.

Can I help save the horned frog?

Yes, you can. You can join the Texas Horned Lizard Watch to better understand why the reptile is doing well in some locations and but not others.

Texas Parks & Wildlife says: “As a participant in Texas Horned Lizard Watch, you will be ‘on-the-ground’ collecting data and observations about populations of horned lizards in your area, their food sources, their potential predators or competitors, or their habitat characteristics. From young to old, Ph.D. to hobbyist, there’s a way for everyone to participate!”

Go here to become a horned lizard watcher.

A few more facts about horned frogs

The Fort Worth Zoo says:

  • Nature gives the lizard a special adaptation for running. It can fold its ribs back, making itself more streamlined for dashing through grasses.

  • The horned lizard burrows underground in September or October and stays there – hibernating – until April or May. When warmer weather sets in, it turns to the task of eating its diet of harvester ants, crickets and beetles, and begins egg-laying.

  • It buries its eggs, up to 30 at a time, in sandy areas.

  • Babies hatch in about 50 days and grow to an adult length up to 6 inches