Where the wild things are
Some of Tulsa’s native critters have adapted to city life, but others have fled as their survival is threatened.
Older Tulsans grew up chasing horny toads on hot summer days, but a younger generation may have only seen the strange reptile in a glass case at the zoo or on the pages of wildlife magazines.
While some ponder the species’ virtual disappearing act, Jay Pruett, director of conservation for the Oklahoma chapter of The Nature Conservancy, knows why the horny toad, or Texas horned lizard, is difficult to find in the Tulsa area today.
He explains that during the past few decades, an increased use of insecticides greatly decreased the city’s population of ants, the horny toad’s main food source. Expanding infrastructure also took away much of its dry, grassy habitat.
“People don’t realize there are a lot of things they do that can affect animals,” Pruett says.
And Tulsa’s urban sprawl hasn’t only affected odd-looking lizards that shoot blood from their eyes. Another of Tulsa’s former inhabitants, the greater prairie chicken, once lived in the grasslands along the city’s north edge. But because of its innate sensitivity to vertical structures, including buildings and trees, the bird has fled the developing area.
“These animals have evolved to know those are places where a hawk could be sitting, waiting to eat them for dinner,” Pruett says.
Pollution from trash and lawn chemicals also has disturbed Tulsa’s fragile ecosystem, altering the pH levels of waterways and hurting animals that live in and around the water, Oklahoma Aquarium curator John Money says.
“Rainwater doesn’t make it into the ground to have a natural filtering effect,” he says. “As a result, harmful substances run on top of impenetrable surfaces like steel and pavement and find their way into our lakes, streams and ponds.”
Reasons for animals’ relocation can be many, but nearly all center on their threatened survival. However, despite the loss of some Tulsa-area species, many native animals remain and have adapted to city life.
Pruett points out that some animals are very opportunistic feeders and don’t discriminate when it comes to habitat. Raccoons, skunks and opossums may have adapted best to Tulsa’s urban development, says Amy Morris, interpretive naturalist at the Oxley Nature Center.
“These animals are omnivores, so they can eat vegetation or meat,” she says. “They’re also nocturnal, so they’re typically out and about when we humans are sleeping.”
Other animals still common to the Tulsa area include white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, coyotes and foxes. Tulsa’s ponds are home to various birds from Canada geese to great blue heron, while many sport fish and other wildlife — including beavers — can be found in the rich and diverse habitat of area rivers and streams.
“It’s really interesting that in Tulsa, we have a lot of life going on around us,” Money says. “There are a lot (of species) that have a good, strong foothold.”
Even the squirrels, birds and other wildlife whose tree canopy habitats were destroyed in the 2007 ice storm remain strong post-disaster. Although the storm’s heavy tree fall increased the incidence of forest fires, Morris says it also created “virtual condominiums” for species that live in dead or fallen trees.
While humans can’t change weather patterns or bring the horny toad back to Tulsa, we can take measures to help ensure existing species remain here for years to come. By decreasing pollution, eliminating chemical usage and treating local wildlife with caution and care, we can protect native species and continue to coexist with them.
“As humans, we have to be as good as we can and try to take care of the environment,” Money says. “We don’t want to create a no-touch zone. The goal is just to enjoy it, not destroy it.”