POV: The humble toad is a backyard superhero

Ask a dozen kids what that high-pitched whistle-like trill is on spring and summer evenings, and all 13 of them will say something that rhymes with “nerd.” That’s right – “bird!” Alas, it is not a bird, it the magnificent call of one of my favorites creatures, Bufo americanus, or the American toad. The call is the male toad summoning all females to a seasonal water hole near you.

Is there any creature truly more beautiful than the toad? The toad has so many special features: webbed feet for swimming, toes for climbing and digging, warts for poisoning, porous skin for drinking and breathing, special skin cells for changing color and the ability to inflate! These qualities surely make the toad an amphibian superhero!

The first thing you notice when you find a toad is its utter inability to escape. Come across a frog, and any attempt to catch it becomes a wild goose chase. The short-legged toad is not so lucky. This poor plodding creature rarely hops more than a foot and has nowhere near the evasiveness of a frog. The toad must rely on a number of other special powers for defense. The first is determination. It will relentlessly try to escape no matter what the obstacles, and if it cannot escape, it will hide, changing skin color to camouflage with its surroundings. As almost every toad wrangler knows, the first thing that usually happens if a toad is caught is the release of everything in its bladder. In short, it pees on you. It is assumed that this liquid tastes bad to potential predators.

The second special power of the toad is that when attacked, it can blow itself up with air, thus enlarging its body perhaps making it too big for the predator to swallow. The third power is to release poisons from the skin. These steroid-based toxins, emitted primarily from the large wart-like lumps behind the eye called parotoid glands, can burn the inside of the mouth and cause sickness and occasionally death to other animals. (It does not burn human skin, but can burn our mucous membranes.) The toad is also an amazing swimmer with large rear webbed feet, and incredibly enough, the toad is a far better climber than you would ever imagine. Watching a toad climb is remarkably like watching a person climb.

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