Of warts and toads

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American toad
Contrary to popular belief, you cannot get warts from picking up toads. In fact, toads don't have warts. (Tami Gingrich photo)

I’m not going to beat around the bush. Let’s begin by getting right to the point. No, you absolutely CANNOT get warts from touching toads! That’s because toads don’t have warts. All of those gnarly, colorful bumps covering their bodies are actually glands, parotoid glands to be exact, the largest of which are located on either side of the toad’s head directly behind each eye.

When a predator attacks a toad, taking it into its mouth, a milky substance known as bufotoxin is secreted from these glands causing an unpleasant, acrid taste which acts as a deterrent. Thus, the toad is inevitably spat out, the predator having learned a valuable lesson it won’t soon forget.

I’ve been handling toads my entire life, and although the toxins don’t seem to have much effect on our skin, care must be taken to keep hands out of eyes and mouth and give them a good washing when you are finished with your experience. Just to be clear, warts are growths resulting from viral infections and parotoid glands are normal, healthy organs.

It’s not pee!

All of those gnarly, colorful bumps covering toads’ bodies are actually glands, parotoid glands to be exact, the largest of which are located on either side of the toad’s head directly behind each eye. (Tami Gingrich photo)

After a decades-long career of leading school groups on nature hikes throughout the many county parks, I can still remember the same result every time a child would find a toad, scoop it up and come running to show me. Shortly thereafter, a scream would ensue, followed by a dropped toad and the words “Ewe, it just peed on me!” The majority of the time, this “pee” is simply a larger volume of toxins reserved for use on bigger threats to the animal. So, although it probably isn’t urine, the effect is the same and the toad gets dropped (hopefully unharmed), earning its freedom.

There is one predator, however, that regularly dines on toads that is completely immune to its toxins. Interestingly, the garter snake not only benefits from a toad for a meal, but it retains the amphibian’s toxins in its own body adding to its own protection. Because a toad has no defense against the garter snake, its second strategy once grabbed, is to blow itself up as big as it possibly can and hope that the snake can’t swallow the added size.

American toad

The American toad’s skin color is brown and variable, able to change in shade to match their environment, assisting with camouflage. (Tami Gingrich photo)

The American toad (Anaxyrus americanus) is a hefty animal measuring up to 4.5 inches in length with females typically larger than the males. Their skin color is brown and variable, able to change in shade to match their environment, assisting with camouflage.

Toads are amphibians. This Greek word, meaning “double-life” exemplifies a group of cold-blooded organisms which live part of their life in water (as gilled larvae) and part on land (breathing through lungs or moist skin). Unlike the majority of its cousins, the frogs and salamanders that have moist, sometimes slimy skin, the toad is dry to the touch. Yet, as all amphibians do, toads require a moist habitat and an aquatic environment in which to lay their eggs.

As spring makes itself known across the landscape, I revel in the vocalizations of amphibians. There is nothing more distinct, or deafening, than a chorus of spring peepers calling from a vernal pool or the soothing trills of the gray treefrogs from the safety of their arboreal abodes or the rum-rum-rum of a giant bullfrog from a distant pond. Yet I always find myself awaiting the breeding season of the toads, when the soft, unbroken trills of the males, sometimes lasting up to 30 seconds, drift across the countryside.

american toad
Beginning in April, American toads awaken and depart their hibernation sites to gather wherever they can find a shallow patch of fresh water. Males arrive first and each individual has its own distinct voice, no two sounding alike. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Beginning in April, as the temperatures warm, American toads awaken and depart their hibernation sites beneath the leaf litter. Steadily, they begin to gather by the dozens wherever they can find a shallow patch of fresh water. Males arrive first and each individual has its own distinct voice, no two sounding alike. As the females approach, attracted by the sweet chorus, they are greeted by their anxious suiters, each frantically vying for a mate. Quite a melee ensues, as the water boils with toads. I took some video of this event occurring at a nearby pond on April 30. You are welcome to view it at youtube.com/watch?v=ssLQqN-L-Ds.

Once a pair finds each other, they hook up in an embrace known as amplexus. As the larger female below begins to expel her eggs, the male above fertilizes them externally as they emerge from her body.

amplexus
Once a pair finds each other, they hook up in an embrace known as amplexus. As the larger female below begins to expel her eggs, the male above fertilizes them externally as they emerge from her body. (Tami Gingrich photo)
toad eggs
Toad eggs are unique among amphibians, as they are composed of two parallel strands of spiraling tubes. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Toad eggs are unique among amphibians, as they are composed of two parallel strands of spiraling tubes. The round eggs, appearing in an organized line and numbering up to 12,000 from a single female, are encased in a protective jelly-like substance. After being randomly deposited, preferably among aquatic plants in the shallows and often by the millions, the eggs are ignored by the parents. Their duty complete, the toads exit the water to return to their terrestrial existence.

Within a week, tiny jet-black tadpoles emerge and the water darkens with their numbers. Completely herbivorous at this stage of their metamorphosis, they gorge themselves on algae and other plant material that they encounter, breathing solely through gills. In just 2 months, legs begin to appear and their gills shrink away. With a new set of lungs and a carnivorous appetite, teeny-tiny toadlets begin to exit the water by the thousands, venturing forth into a new world. It will take 2 to 3 years before they reach sexual maturity.

Saving toad tadpoles

One of a toad’s downfalls is its eagerness to deposit eggs in almost any wet recess, not taking into account how long it might be before it dries out. Julie Zickefoose saved these tadpoles from an evaporating hole that had recently been dug near her gas well. (Julie Zickefoose photo)

I was inspired to write this article by a good friend who recently encountered a mass of toad tadpoles that were doomed to perish. Julie Zickefoose, well-known naturalist, artist and author posted a story about a small hole that had recently been dug near her gas well. The depression had filled with water and toads had mistaken it for an advantageous place in which to lay their eggs.

One of a toad’s downfalls is its eagerness to deposit eggs in almost any wet recess, not taking into account how long it might be before it dries out. Julie’s discovery was this very scenario. By the time she arrived, the puddle was nearly desiccated, and tiny tadpoles lay parched and perished, the remaining live ones crammed into a tiny pool of water just a few inches wide. Leave it to Julie, who did her best to scoop up the lucky little taddies. She took them home, placing them in a large bowl of water, offering them lettuce and fish food before finally relocating them to a deeper puddle that happened to be spring-fed.

Not all toad tadpoles are this fortunate when they find themselves in peril. Yet the fact that each toad lays thousands of eggs helps to ensure that at least some of their offspring will survive to carry on the species.

American toads are native and widespread throughout eastern North America. As long as there is moisture and a bountiful food supply, they are adaptable to many different habitats.

For those of you who have encountered toads that have taken up residence near your home, consider yourself lucky. It just so happens that toads enjoy a daily smorgasbord of slugs, snails, earthworms and other arthropods. Placing a terracotta flower pot on its side, partially buried in the soil will provide the toad a much-needed abode that will keep it around for years to come and it will gladly reciprocate the favor by keeping your garden free of pests. We all have a friend in toads!

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