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How the Texas Horned Lizard Stays Hydrated in the State's Harshest Deserts

German researchers found that the desert-dwelling horned toad uses its skin to channel water directly to its mouth, to stay hydrated.

The Texas horned lizard — also known as the horny toad, or the horned frog to TCU fans — lives in some of the harshest deserts in the Southwest.  But scientists are learning more about how the lizard survives, and what they’ve discovered could have applications for the rest of us.

The research took place far away from the horny toads’ North American native habitat, at the University of Aachen in Germany, where Philip Comanns sought to discover how the toad stays hydrated in the deserts of West Texas and Northern Mexico.

“I had preserved lizards in the lab, and so I could cut parts of the lizards' skin,” he says.

Credit Philip Comanns
A close-up of Texas horned lizard scales.

What Comanns found when he looked at the skin were interlocking, dorsal-shaped capillary channels. They have evolved in such a way that when moisture gets on the lizard skin, it’s naturally channeled towards the mouth.

“So if you apply a single water droplet on the skin, the water is transported faster towards the front direction than any other direction,” he says.

Comanns engineered the same systems on other surfaces and says they could have applications for anything that needs to move moisture from one place to another. Things like medical devices, machinery that requires lubrication, even distilleries.

Below, you can see Comann's replication of the lizards' scales.

He says there’s still much to learn, but the future of the iconic Texas lizard is in doubt. The horny toad has been disappearing across much of its range and is now listed as threatened by the state of Texas.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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