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Species of the Month – The fascinating world of toads and toadspawn

March 5, 2018

My name is Jack Bedford and I am an Assistant Community Conservation Officer for Dorset Wildlife Trust. As part of my job, I am responsible for organising the ‘Species of the Month’ programme, our project for recording wildlife across the county. One of the best aspects of working on ‘Species of the Month’ is researching each of the species. I search for the important facts about the animal, plant or fungus, such as how to identify it, its diet or growth pattern and its behaviour, to give a good overview of the species. I also look for interesting and quirky facts to include, so people have a chance to learn something new and entertaining.

Usually, I find a few interesting facts to include each month. But whilst researching for March’s ‘Species of the Month’, the toad, I hit the proverbial gold mine of fun facts! I only use around three facts in the page, so I thought I would share some more, that didn’t make the final cut, here.

First things first, the reason the common toad is our Species of the Month for March is that at this time of year, toads are coming to ponds to mate and lay their eggs. Males latch onto females in a position known as ‘amplexus’ (which is Latin for ‘embrace’), grasping under the females ‘armpits’. When the female is ready, she begins to lay her eggs, which the male then fertilises. Incredibly, toads can lay between 600 and 5000 eggs in two strings, which can measure up to three meters in length!

Another surprising fact I discovered about toads is their longevity. A wild toad can reach 10-12 years, an impressive age for a relatively small animal. However, in captivity, common toads have managed to reach an astounding age of 50 years! Their long lives could in part be thanks to the toxin they produce in their skin. This makes them foul tasting to most predators, sparing them a grizzly fate. That is, unless the predator is a grass snake or a hedgehog; apparently, neither is bothered by the toxic taste!

Toads benefit from their toxins in ponds too. The tadpoles contain the same toxins, and so are left alone by hungry fish. This means that you may well find toads in a garden pond with fish, whereas any frogs would likely be eaten! Although toads spawn in ponds, and spend the first part of their lifecycle in water, they actually pass most of their lives away from waterbodies. They can be found several kilometres from ponds or lakes and spend the winter in holes in the ground or log piles. That being said, toads have been found in some very startling places. In 2007, a team of researchers were using a remotely operated vehicle to survey the waters of Loch Ness. The vehicle’s cameras captured footage of a toad crawling along the bottom of the Loch, 98 meters below the surface!!! A bit deeper than your average toad pond!

Toads are known to travel between areas of water, but did you know they sometimes provide transport to other creatures? A scientific study by Kwet in 1995 found that a tiny freshwater clam (Sphaerium corneum) moved between ponds by catching a lift on the toes of toads! These clams grow to be a maximum of 1.3cm in diameter, it probably isn’t much of a burden for the toad.

Along with all of these incredible facts about toad biology, these amphibians are the subject of a multitude of folklores. Toads have long been associated with evil, or regarded as bad omens, possibly due to their toxic secretions. They were often linked to witchcraft, with women suspected of being witches having their houses searched for toads. If one was found, it served as confirmation! To add to the toad’s infamy, in the European Middle Ages, toads and frogs became closely linked with the Devil, with a coat of arms created for Satan, featuring 3 of the creatures!

Despite the often negative portrayal of toads, they are sometimes regarded in a more positive light. Up until the 19th century, people known as ‘toad doctors’ would use toads as a cure for scrofula (a skin disease) as well as other illnesses, perhaps ironically believed to be caused by witchcraft! The toad doctors would put a toad (or just one’s leg!) in a bag to be hung around the patient’s neck and wait for the patient to be healed!

Finally, and fittingly for this time of year, the author George Orwell apparently wrote an essay called ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’, in which he declared toads emerging from their winter sleeps as one of the most moving signals of spring. If Orwell’s opinion, and all of these bizarre facts, haven’t convinced you to go out looking for toads, then I’m not sure what could!

If you’ve spotted a toad or toadspawn, let us know by filling in our online form by clicking here.

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