American Toad


(This column was first published in the May 2, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News.)


At this time of year our marshes and vernal pools continue to reverberate with the loud chirping of spring peepers and the comb-tweek rattling of chorus frogs.


If you listen closely, however, you'll also be able to isolate another sound, a trill lasting 15-30 seconds. Then, just after one vibrato ends, you'll hear a similar trill from another direction, this one slightly different in pitch. If you can whistle and hum at the same time, you can imitate these sounds.


These are the songs of American toads. Like other amphibians, they create that music by inflating their throat and releasing air through the resulting balloon. It is unknown why the responding singers change pitch. Perhaps they seek to stress their individuality. After all, these are advertisements to prospective mates.


Separating toads from frogs is easy. Unlike frogs that leap, toads are more sedate: they merely hop and never more than a few inches. This is the source of their colloquial name, hop-toads. Also, frog skin is smooth, moist and slimy while the skin of toads is dry and covered with warts.


Toads' base coloration varies widely: gray, brown, olive or even brick red. Whatever that foundation color, however, their backs are mottled with black rings, each surrounding one or more warts.


It is those warts that give toads their reputation as ugly but they also help us differentiate American toads from another species that occurs just across the Niagara River in Ontario. The American toad has one or two warts in each of those rings; the rare Fowler's toad has three.


Contrary to folklore those warts are not communicable.


Unfortunately, that fable about kissing a toad turning it into a prince is also suspect and I don't recommend you test it. Why? Because toads have two enlarged glands - the technical term is paratoid glands - on their neck behind their eyes. They exude a viscous, foul-smelling white poison that gives these slow-moving animals a defense against most predators. The toxin can kill small mammals like chipmunks and even make large dogs ill. Since we don't eat (or kiss) toads, we don't have those problems. If you handle a toad, however, you should wash your hands as the poison is harmful to the membranes of your mouth, nose and eyes.


Snakes can tolerate this poison so toads employ a different defense with them: they puff themselves up, apparently to make themselves appear too large to swallow. Occasionally when threatened, toads also feign death, flipping over on their backs. When they "awaken" they have to struggle to right themselves.


Many amphibians produce eggs in large masses but the eggs of toads are issued in long strings. A single female can produce 20,000 of these black dots in curling lines of jelly. Look for them in ponds through May and June.


After only a few days tadpoles appear, break out of the mucous and begin their interesting four to six week transition from pollywog to toad. Those tiny half-inch toads you see are not a different species: they will grow to be 3-4 inches in size in a lifetime that can extend several decades.


Like snakes, toads must shed their skin to grow and they do so four or more times each year. This is seldom seen because it is done so rapidly, the discarded skin quickly swallowed.


People who don't spread pesticides often release toads in their yards to help control insects and especially slugs. The toads rapidly accommodate to those who share their garden and readily demonstrate their tongue-snap feeding in taking handouts. Some people even put out boxes under shade trees in which their pet toad can shelter during the heat of the day.


Shakespeare calls attention to one other feature of this interesting amphibian:


  Oh, mark the beauty of his eye,

  What wonders in that circle lie!

  So clear, so bright, our fathers said -

  'He wears a jewel in his head.'


Perhaps that story about the prince is not so far-fetched after all.-- Gerry Rising