The American Toad couple with eggs!
The first poem that I ever had published, “Summer Solstice Conversation” documented an experience I had with a large toad that I called Grandmother on the day of the summer solstice. The editor re-named my poem “Toadwoman” which annoyed me at the time, but now, many years later I find the title strangely relevant because I think I have recently been initiated into the Toad Clan.
A few days ago when my dogs and I walked down to North pond I heard a low hum coming from the water. I recognized the sound immediately because a couple of summers ago I heard that identical music while in my kayak as I approached a cove that was also “humming.” Suspecting amphibious activity of some kind I was still stunned to come upon so many American toads whose bulbous golden eyes were popping out of the water. Toads have the most beautiful eyes. The pupils are oval and black with a circle of gold around them. Toads do see in color although the color hues are blue and green. Delighted to have met so many of my friends that year I planned to revisit the cove in a couple of days to see if I could gather some eggs. When I did return I was disappointed. No hum and not a double string of black and white pearls in sight.
This year I hoped might be different. Approaching the shallow water to let my dogs cool off I was delighted to hear the humming intensify. And before my eyes could register the sequence I came upon a whole multitude of toads with smaller toads on their backs. They were clustered in a shallow reedy area. Remarkably, these toad couples appeared to be as fascinated by me as I was by them because they instantly gathered round in a semi –circle to stare at me with golden eyes. “Hi, we are glad to meet you! Welcome to the Toad Clan!” I thought I heard them say. One male toad suddenly inflated his throat like a balloon and trilled briefly. I stood there dumbfounded.
That’s when I noticed the coveted double strings of black pearls swirling in the water. I just couldn’t believe it. Re-routing the dogs to another shallow spot to bathe, I noted that the humming didn’t cease even when the dogs happily plunged into the pond. I counted back three days to the first day I heard humming. Today I noted the sound long before reaching the pond. It was that intense, but low pitched and very soothing to listen to, a kind of natural symphony. Hurrying the dogs along we reached home in record time. I immediately returned to the pond with my camera and a pail to gather eggs. Once again the toads gathered round me as I gently removed some strings of toad eggs, that in all probability, had just been laid by the toad chorus.
Once I arrived home I put the strings of black eggs with white undersides in my aquarium with attached greenery, and sat down to do some research on the gestation period for the American toad because I planned to raise a few to get to know my new relatives.
I quickly learned that the gestation period from egg to toad occurs over a period of 50 to 65 days and that the mating period is variable from March to July depending on the latitude. Some sources said that toads laid their eggs in vernal pools, which is where I always looked (unsuccessfully) for the eggs. According to most sources males go to shallow breeding areas in vernal pools, small ponds and slow moving streams and call out to attract the females with their distinctly high pitched musical trill which one toad had just demonstrated for me with his ballooning throat. When the female arrives the distinctly smaller male with his darker throat grabs her with his fatter front arms (that have pads for gripping the female) until she discharges her eggs. The male then fertilizes the eggs by discharging fluid. The eggs are encased in long spiral tubes of a jelly –like substance. They are laid in two separate strings with thousands of eggs in each string and are attached to submerged vegetation or float close to the shallow bottom. The females provide nutrients for their eggs inside their bodies, but after laying the eggs parenting is over!
The eggs hatch in three to twelve days (mine hatched in three days) and some studies suggest that the tadpoles have a reciprocal relationship with Chlorogonium algae, which makes the tadpoles develop faster than normal. Toad tadpoles are considered herbivores because they graze on aquatic vegetation; adult toads are carnivorous. Often entire groups of tadpoles reach the toadlet stage at once and a mass migration to higher ground takes place usually to shaded woodland areas with plenty of vegetation (this occurs around here early in August most years when tiny toads appear in the grass or dirt roads in profusion). Toadlets can be observed eating microscopic bugs; as they get larger they also love ants, spiders, snails, beetles, slugs and worms. Unlike most toads who wait for prey to come along American toads can shoot out their sticky tongues to catch prey; they also use their front legs in order to eat larger food. They grasp their prey and push it into their mouths. Some toads also wipe their mouths with their four fingered “hands” after eating. One American toad can eat up to 1,000 insects a day!
It takes two to three years for a toad to reach adulthood and sexual maturity. Toads usually don’t live more than 3-5 years in the wild although they can live up to thirty to forty years in captivity. People mowing lawns routine kill thousands of toads a year. Many folks know that toads do not drink water but soak it in, absorbing all moisture through their skin. I leave water dishes for frogs and toads around well-shaded areas in my garden and in the evening I can sometimes see a toad or frog sitting in these dishes. I notice that they also hunt from these shallow wells because bugs are attracted to water too. Another possibility is that the toads could be urinating!
Toad trilling is not only used at mating time by the male toad. Throughout the summer especially on hot or rainy nights toad trills can be heard singing in this hollow down by the brook. It seems obvious that these toads are communicating with other toads perhaps defending a territory? What surprised me is that none of the sources I consulted mentioned the low pitched hum of the toads that I heard on the pond which is a very different sound from the toad trill.
Tadpoles have several mechanisms to reduce predation. They avoid predators by swimming in very shallow water often with vegetation and also swim close together in schools during the day (I noticed that the North Pond tadpoles were using these techniques rather well). Tadpoles also produce toxic chemicals in their skin like the adult American toad, and fish can die after consuming even one tadpole. When tadpoles begin to hatch they have gills located on the sides of their heads. During the first 20 days they start to form their hind legs (I have one tadpole that has “buds” starting to form on the place where his back legs will be after only 6 days). After 30 – 40 days the front legs appear. At the same time the front legs emerge, the tadpoles’ gills disappear and the tadpoles start to breathe air. From raising frogs I learned how carefully I had to watch for this development to occur because when it did the froglet has to have a place on land. Otherwise the amphibian might drown. The same is true for toads. In the final two or three days of development the toads complete their metamorphosis, reabsorbing their tails and strengthening their legs. At this point the tiny herbivore becomes a carnivore. Baby toads stay by their wetlands for a few days before dispersing to live on dryer land. When they are grown they are about three or four inches in length with the females distinctly the larger of the two. They shed their skin every couple of weeks and often eat it!
Aren’t they beautiful?
(Tiny toad tadpoles located at the edge of the pond 6 days after hatching)
With enough cover, moisture, and adequate food American toads can live almost anywhere and are found throughout eastern portions of North America except for Florida. In the non – breeding season individuals have a home range of several hundred feet but during breeding periods they travel. Toads are nocturnal. Around here they love my gardens, and in the evenings they can often be seen hunting. They are most active when the weather is warm and humid and as adults are quite solitary, although here I have an adult pair that seem to stay together year after year. Is this an anomaly? During the day, toads hide under rocks or vegetation. In regions like Maine where winters are cold American Toads dig deep in sandy soil to hibernate. When digging they back in, pushing out dirt with strong back legs.
Predators of adult toads include several species of snakes, birds and mammals. Some are immune to the toxic secretions. When threatened American toads will remain still relying on camouflage. In some instances they will inflate their bodies and extend their limbs so as to appear larger.
The American toad interbreeds with other toads that overlap its territory. They vary in color from tan brown reddish brown or olive green, some have distinct patterns and a cream stripe going down the back. Toad skin is nubbly in texture and contains parotoid glands that produce a white toxin that helps protect them from predators. Skin color can change depending on habitat, humidity stress, and temperature. Toads display breeding sight fidelity. Individuals often return to natal ponds to breed and will encounter siblings but these toads actively avoid close kin as mates. Vocalizations by males apparently serve as cues by which the females recognize their kin.
Unlike most folks I find toads quite beautiful and as a child kept one in a large terrarium one winter. Every time this little fellow was hungry he would come to the glass and stare me down! I put bits of raw hamburger on a thread and as soon as I waved it in front of him he grabbed it. He also seemed to enjoy being petted and held. Toads make very good friends if you give them a loving home. The next spring I was very sad when my mother told me that I had to let him go. She was right, of course. These are wild creatures that need their freedom just like humans do.