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Nature Notes: Toads

Ed Robinson
April 20, 2016
Craig Snapp photo
Craig Snapp photo

I decided to write this article when super photographer Craig Snapp shared this beautiful photo.  As is my practice, I went to my computer and began searching for information to expand upon my own knowledge of toads.  The first thing that popped up on Google was a great computer software product called Toad, “…for the development and optimization of Oracle databases.”  You will be as excited as I was to learn that there is even a Toad World internet community for “connected intelligence” – presumably a higher order of intelligence than actual toads, but one wonders….

The normally reliable Wikipedia site even managed to disappoint, offering this line: “A toad is any of a number of species of amphibians in the order Anura (frogs) that are characterized by dry leathery skin, short legs and parotoid glands (reminds me of my first girlfriend in 4th grade!).  Further reading revealed that “true toads make up the family Bufonidae, the only family of Anurans that are all known as toads, although some may be called frogs” (thanks, that was very helpful!).

The bottom line is that toads and frogs are closely related, and even scientists can be confused when trying to sort out the many hundreds of species around the world.  For our purposes, there are useful distinguishing features of the common or American toads we see locally.  They are fat-bodied, with short hind legs and dry skin covered in bumps (often incorrectly called warts).  They have hard ridges on top of their heads, brown to gray colored skin and bright colored eyes.  Most toads do not have teeth, whereas most frogs do.  The toad’s tongue is used to capture much of its food, flicking out with a sticky tip to snare unlucky prey.

Folk lore claimed that touching a toad would result in warts on your hands, but that is not true.  The toad’s dull, bumpy skin is part of his camouflage, helping him to blend into his habitat to avoid predators.  You should use caution when handling toads, however, because those parotoid glands behind the eyes produce secretions called bufotoxins that are mildly poisonous to most humans.  Most animals learn that smelling and eating toads results in an unpleasant or painful experience, so they generally leave them alone.  But snakes, turtles and predatory birds like herons seem to have no problem with the taste and toxins.

Toads lead a quiet life, mostly nocturnal, over a life span of five to 40 years.  During the day they will rest in deep grasses, burrows, hollow logs or under leaves.  Because of their dry skin, they can live further from water than most frogs.  When hunting, they look for insects, grubs, slugs, worms and other invertebrates.  They are also capable of eating vegetarian meals, especially in their tadpole stage.  They hibernate underground below the frost line to survive cold stretches, with their metabolic rates dropping very low.

March and April will find toads emerging and on the move, looking for love.  During their migration to the ponds where they were born, toads are vulnerable to predators and death on the highway.  On warm evenings, you may hear their high floating calls or “trilling” in search of the right mate.  Mating can continue into July.  The female requires a clean water source to lay up to 15,000 eggs in long, double strings up to 4 feet long.  The eggs hatch in a few days, yielding a tiny tadpole with a tail and gills to breathe underwater, until a metamorphosis allows the small toad to move onto land using its lungs.

Toads are one of nature’s quiet creatures, avoiding exposure when possible.  They are not gifted leapers like frogs, nor can they run away from enemies.  Toads play an important role in the world around us.  Scientists have estimated that the average toad will eat up to 3,000 insects per month.  Imagine how buggy our summer evenings outdoors would be without toads, bats, swallows and other insectivores on the job.

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