Picture walks: The secret life of toads

A toad sings in hopes of finding its mate. Photo by Jeanne Church.

By Jeanne Church

In the early part of May, I was visiting the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in Mattawan hoping to find something interesting to photograph. The weather was unseasonably hot, though, and not many creatures were willing to have their picture taken.

I had all but given up when something caught my attention in a nearby pond. It was wiggling around in the water and I thought maybe it was a frog, but when I zoomed in to take a picture, all I saw were toads!

Frogs have smooth skin. Toads have bumpy, warty-looking skin.) I’d never seen toads in the water before – only on land, and it was an unexpected surprise! There were dozens of them swimming around frantically.

It didn’t take long to figure out that I had just come across an orgy of toads. The boy toads were grabbing the girl toads left and right, hopping on their backs and riding around as the girls tried to stay afloat and keep on swimming.

As I stood on the shoreline watching, I noticed a big ball of toads rolling around in the water about 15 feet from where I was standing. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but later discovered that several male toads can clump together around a single female, each trying to stay attached while simultaneously trying to kick the others away. One report documented 12 males attached to a single female! If she cannot escape their grasp or otherwise come up for air, she will drown.

All the young male toads, those who hadn’t already found a girlfriend, were belting out songs along the shoreline announcing their availability. Interestingly, both frogs and toads have vocal cords like humans, but they also have a vocal sac, which allows them to “sing”. To start “singing” (or calling for a mate), the toads take a deep breath and then close their nostrils. They then force this air back and forth between their lungs and the vocal sac so that their vocal cords can make the air vibrate. The vocal sac puffs up like a balloon under their throat and works like an inflatable amplifier. During the mating season, a toad’s call can become quite loud with each plaintive trill lasting up to 30 seconds! With dozens of toads belting out songs at the same time, it creates quite a din — one that I rather enjoy.

What puzzled me most about the toads I was watching, were the two long “strings” that trailed behind each of the mating females. I had to do a little research to find an explanation. Apparently, when the male toad grabs the female, he stays attached until she discharges her eggs and then he fertilizes them. Those two strings, which can be up to sixty-six feet long, are spiral tubes of a jelly-like substance holding anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 eggs!! After the female releases her strings of eggs, they attach themselves to vegetation in the water, or they sink to the bottom where they will hatch as little tadpoles within 3-12 days. Over the next 8-10 weeks the tadpoles will slowly transform into toadlets, or tiny toads about the size of your small fingernail. At that stage, they are ready to leave the pond and head into the woods to live. In two to four years, they’ll be ready to start the whole process all over again.

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