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Otto: Toads are coming soon to a pond near you

Published: Saturday, May 14, 2011 5:30 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 1)

Well, they’re at it again.

The boys next door have started up with their rabble-rousing ways, raising a ruckus into the wee hours several nights this past week.

While I’m no fan of noisy neighbors, I didn’t mind the racket these fellows were making. In fact, it lulled me to sleep Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. But that’s to be expected when you’re listening to the extended, melodic trills of Bufo americanus, the American toad.

Each spring as the temperatures begin to warm these ardent fellows make their way to the nearest waterway and start their calling in earnest. Their goal: to attract females of the species and engage in amplexus – the amphibian way to procreate. Their success rate: well, I guess that depends on how you measure “success.”

American toads are by no means endangered. In fact I’m inclined to think their numbers have benefited, at least locally, from people’s increased interest in water gardening and backyard ponds. I know that 10 years ago we never heard toads in our St. Charles neighborhood but now their presence is hard to miss. So, if you measure success by a population’s numbers, then American toads appear to be doing just fine.

But if you break down that success rate to an individual level, well, then you have to start to wonder. I’ve seen male toads attempting to mate other males – efforts that end with a certain amount of thrashing and a squeaky “release call” emitted by the mate-ee. I’ve also seen female toads literally dead in the water, drowned beneath the attentions of too many males. Success? I think not.

Besides their penchant for mating with whatever moves, toads also are indiscriminate when it comes to breeding locations.

As amphibians, they need water in which to lay their strings of gelatinous eggs. Ideally, that water will be in the form of a quiet pond or marsh – the sorts of places you just naturally associate with frogs and toads. However, in reality American toads will opt for whatever water happens to be handy. In-ground pools are popular, but ill fated, sites, as are roadside ditches and puddles on trails and paths.

Probably contributing to this lack of discernment is the fact that American toad metamorphosis – that magical transformation from water-dwelling, gill-breathing tadpole to land-dwelling, air breathing toad – takes only about eight weeks. You don’t need a permanent body of water when things happen that quickly. (Bullfrogs and green frogs, our area’s largest frogs, by comparison take one to two years to transform.)

A newly transformed toad, known as a toadlet, is not much bigger than a pencil eraser. No strangers to the concept of safety in numbers, they emerge from their water body en masse and disperse shortly thereafter. They then set about the business of growing, doubling in length and quadrupling in weight in just a couple of months.

As they grow, their warts – arguably a toad’s most prominent feature – enlarge too. Two in particular become quite noticeable. Located behind the eyes, these parotoid glands contain a toxin that is a toad’s best defense against getting eaten.  I won’t say how I know, but the milky-white substance secreted by these glands tastes bitter – really bitter – and typically causes predators to let go, fast.

The temperatures have cooled off for the weekend, and so likely will the toads. But they’ll be back again as soon as the weather warms up again. Listen for their trills, coming soon to a pond or wetland – or pool or puddle – near you.

• Pam Otto, who’s only tasted bufotoxin once, and it was a really long time ago, is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.

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