I missed posting yesterday because I barely saw my computer. The only downside that I could really complain about living out in the country is that high-speed internet is still a specialty service, either for those who can afford the up-front costs of satellite, or for those lucky areas serviced by wireless or DSL. Since we fall into neither category, we are stuck with dial-up for the time being. Dial-up has the dual inconvenience of being exceptionally slow for today’s internet, and being more difficult to network effectively than high-speed. Also, unless you get a second phone line, your phone is tied up for the duration you’re online (which tends to be most of the day for us).
Blackburnian has been at the computer for the last few days to get his website set up and operational. And because of the above problems with dial-up, it’s been necessary for him to use mine (it’s the one with the modem), and it took him a fair while to work out the kinks. He’s an artist like myself, only better, and less distracted by writing and other projects. He is also planning on undertaking some research projects in our area, primarily with birds. His website is part art gallery, part promotional, and part blog. In the blog he plans to post his artwork as he completes it (all will be offered for sale through eBay) and talk about his research and other nature projects. I encourage all my readers to pop over and check it out (because he put a lot of work into it, but more importantly, because I sacrificed my computer for three days toward it!).
So now that that project is completed, I am back at my keyboard. And, as revealed by the photo above, the mystery subject of a couple days ago, that Blackburnian brought to the window, was none other than a very fat, very brown American Toad (Bufo americanus).
I’m not sure where Blackburnian found him; hopping across the grass beside the driveway is my guess, but he didn’t say. He’d picked him up and brought him to the window. I thought the toad would make an easy short post, but I just couldn’t decide on a photo. Or even two. At three photos we’re getting into long-post range, so I felt I should save them and go into more detail.
American Toads are very common, but are restricted to eastern North America. In the plains there’s the appropriately-named Great Plains Toad (B. cognatus), and Canadian Toad (Bufo hemiophrys), and to the west, the Western Toad (B. boreas). The southeast has a couple species, Oak Toad (B. quercicus) and Southern Toad (B. terrestris), and the southwest one, Red-spotted Toad (B. punctatus). One final toad has a range that covers most of the US, but virtually none of Canada, the Common Toad (B. woodhousei), sometimes also called Woodhouse’s Toad or Fowler’s Toad. In all, there’s only 17 “true toad” species, members of the genus Bufo, in North America north of Mexico. The only one I’ve ever seen is the American Toad. Fowler’s does make it into Ontario in the extreme southwest, but just barely, and it’s very rare.
The true toads are defined by the presence of two things. The first is bony ridges on the top of the head, just behind the eyes, called cranial crests. Not all toads have well-developed crests, and their location behind the eyes can make them easily overlooked. More obvious is the presence of large swollen patches at the back of the head, one on each side. These are glands, called parotoid glands, which produce a secretion that is toxic if ingested. They serve as a defense system against predators, although it’s unclear to me whether predators will spit the toad out when it tastes the secretion, or whether predators learn from prior experience to avoid toads in the future.
The other noticeable characteristic of toads, which is not present on any of the other amphibians in my area, is warts. Toads are very warty. These warts are also toxin-secreting glands, although because they’re much smaller they don’t secrete as much. Different species of toad can have different wart patterns. In the case of the American Toad, there is generally just one, or occasionally two, warts per black spot (in fact, the black spots can be hard to see because there’s just one wart). The Western Toad has two to three warts per black dot, and the Common Toad has three or more.
The beliefs that toads cause warts in humans, or that handling a toad is poisonous, are both false, although it’s good to wash your hands after handling one in case any of the toxins got on them. Probably if your dog picks up a toad it’s not going to die, but if it ingests any of the toxins it can potentially become very sick (this really applies to any animals, including humans, though what you’d be doing eating a toad, I don’t know…). Also not true is the belief that you can get high from licking a toad. There are a few toads whose toxins produce hallucinogenic effects, including the Sonoran Desert Toad, B. alvarius, but the toxins generally need to be dried and ingested, as an enzyme in human saliva inhibits the psychoactivity of the chemicals. More likely is that you’ll have a bad taste in your mouth and feel ill for a bit.
Like other amphibians, toads lay eggs in jelly-like capsules. The eggs are fertilized by the male, who sits astride the female’s back, his arms wrapped around her belly in a death grip (called amplexus, Latin for “embrace”), and releases sperm onto the eggs as she produces them. Toad eggs are produced in long strings, while frog eggs tend to be in large, floating globular masses (salamanders also lay eggs in globular masses, but theirs sink). Toad eggs have the characteristic of being dark on top and light on the bottom, to help camouflage them from view from either perspective.
As tadpoles, toads are herbivores, grazing on algae and plant bits. Toads are, for the most part, insect eaters, but will opportunistically dip into omnivory if they find something suitable. They may eat fruits or vegetables, or even dog food left out for Fido in the backyard. For the most part, though, they’ll eat crickets, worms, ants, and other small insects, and can be helpful for pest control.
Toads have dry, leathery skin, which is useful for preventing water loss. They are primarily a terrestrial species, generally only spending time in water during mating. As long as there is an appropriate body of water nearby for the spring, toads are happy to roam overland the rest of the year. They’re commonly found under decks, in gardens, or other shady, damp areas. They spend the winter hibernating burrowed in the ground. When digging out the burrow, they back in, and use their back legs to push the dirt out.
Come spring, as the days start to warm, the toads emerge and trek out to their mating ponds. I think of them as one of the earlier species to start singing in the spring. Their call is a long, level trill, distinct from the similar-voiced Gray Treefrog primarily by its length (a treefrog’s call is shorter, not so sustained). By summer they start to quiet, and by this time of year they should all be preparing to cozy in for the winter. I guess we still have a little while before frost hits, but it’s not too far off, so I hope this guy had a snug place lined up for the coming cold weather.