guest post: it’s dating season for toads

This week for the Familiar Wilderness in Your Backyard series, Leah Stetson of the blog Strange Wetlands offers some insight into amphibian romance as seen from her deck. An expert on quirky quagmires, Leah is a human ecologist. She lives in a cottage by a pond. Her meandering backyard has a seep she calls “Fern Gully,” a vernal pool with wood frogs and a perennial stream, and a gang of petal-pushing hummingbirds. Islands, sunken gardens, swamp rock, poetry and swimming are among her favorite things. This post originally ran on her blog in May.

I am glad I don’t suffer bufonophobia, a fear of toads, because a gang of American toads (Bufo americanus)  live under my deck. They come out at night and sit, fat as golfballs, one of them the size of a baseball, in the moonlight. Their posturing reminds me of the T-birds and the Pink Ladies in “Grease” at the drive-in.

American Toad in the author's backyard in Maine

Careful not to step on them when I stand in the yard, I let my dog enjoy a few minutes of midnight sounds, smells and shadows, with caution. The toads barely budge if she sniffs their bumpy bodies. She doesn’t like toads, luckily. I’m nervous about taking a step, worried I might squish one, anticipating the inevitable movement—but a toad’s test of wills (or staying power) beats mine every time.

Some toads, including the American toad, have paratoid glands that can secrete a white poison to would-be predators (if bitten or handled, for instance). The poison is toxic inside a mouth—or if after a human handles a toad, touches the eye or mouth.  It can cause nausea, inflamed mouth or throat, irregular heart beat and in very severe cases—death. They can be a danger to pets for this reason. When you think about it, batrachophobes, who fear any reptiles or amphibians, have probably had an incident that caused a symptom, or knew of someone who did. I never believed one could get “warts” from a toad, but perhaps this myth originated from the handling of toads causing undesirable symptoms. National Geographic busted that myth for kids, here.

Toads are nocturnal. During the day the amphibians hide under the deck. I’ve wondered what they do all day—eat insects, sleep, burrow underground, intimidate baby garter snakes? The child in me imagines Toad and Frog riding around in their small motorcar. The ecologist in me wants to set up candid cameras under the deck and film the toads’ daytime activities.  This is their breeding time (March-July), when they emerge from their burrows to eat at night and mate. It is more likely that the underside of my short deck is dull by day and hoppin’ at night. Along patches of my seep, nicknamed “Fern Gully,” I’ve observed toadlets, baby toads, crawling along the muddy wooded floor. They are small, about an inch long in body, not counting legs. What’s amazing to me is that toad eggs can hatch in a matter of days (3-13 days) and the toadlets grow to adulthood in about a month. In Pennsylvania, there is an organization looking for volunteers to help with a program called “Toad Detour,” that seeks to help toadlets cross roads and get to safe habitats. Their website has some great photos and a recording of toad sounds. More about their work with toads is posted on the Philly Herping Blog.

Fern Gully, where the toads hide by day...
...and emerge at night for a little romance.

The American toad’s large range extends as south as Georgia, as west as Wisconsin and as north as Canada. There are other toads of concern throughout the U.S. For example, the endangered Arroyo toad in California depends on a diminishing wetland habitat. The Sheepscot Wellspring Land Alliance for Spring Amphibians kicked off its programs in Maine earlier in May, teaching people about the 9 species of frogs and toads in the state.

In other blogs, spadefoot toads have received some attention lately. Volunteers in different areas gather to help toads and frogs cross busy roads during their breeding season. A headstart program in Massachusetts visited the Cape Cod National Seashore this month to learn about vernal pools and amphibian habitat, including spadefoot toads. According to Mass Audubon, the spadefoot is neither true toad or frog—it’s a primitive amphibian. A segment of a Hands-On Wetland Creation Workshop for Professionals, led in part by Tom Biebighauser, with the U.S. Forest Service, addressed the topic of spadefoots at the Long Pasture Sanctuary on Cape Cod in May.

The Familiar Wilderness in Your Backyard is a series of dispatches from friends and neighbors from all over. If you’d like to contribute a post about how you find the natural world, or how it finds you wherever you are, send me an email!

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