Wetland habitats can be some of the most interesting places! Plants that grow there have to be adapted to endure downright swampy conditions and the wildlife that frequent these unforgiving areas are as unique as the environment that they inhabit.
What On Earth Is That Sound?
It was mid-April and there wasn’t much fully awake yet outside in our little corner of Pennsylvania. The trees were barely budding, but the sea of brown around us was slowly ebbing and a tide of green was gradually closing in. Blooming Northern Spicebush created a hazy yellow mist in the woods. Mayapples were still hugging their leaves tightly about themselves like a child clings to a blanket on a cold morning. Even the birds seemed to be restlessly awaiting the elusive season known as spring in the northeast.
We had a week of unseasonably warm weather. With sunny days, temperatures soared into the mid to upper seventies. The geese were nesting and snakes were waking up from hibernation at seemingly every turn. While out for our morning walk, Jamie and I tiptoed past the aforementioned geese. I was on high alert for Northern Water Snakes. Each year in early spring they bask in the sun at the driveway creek crossing and scare the wits out of me. After safely navigating the gauntlet of local wildlife, we heard a noise coming from the edge of the woods. It was so strange and so loud that it demanded immediate investigation. A mysterious chorus of odd trills and chirps beckoned us toward a wet natural spring seep below the creek.
It didn’t take long to figure out what all the fuss was about. Sitting as regal as a king, an impressive male toad called out from his boggy throne, demanding attention from all the webbed and warty subjects in the land. Wait! It wasn’t just one. It was a multitude! Ok, so in reality maybe two dozen. I mean, have you HEARD the sound that twenty-something toads can make when they are… you know… relating to one another?!
Completely ignoring our presence, this guy sang loud and long with singular purpose as part of a fascinating mating ritual. With each trilling melody, his throat puffed out like an inflated balloon. The water rippled around him from the vibrations he was producing.
The usually clear water of the seep became muddied very quickly from all the activity. Once everyone had paired up, it became surprisingly quiet in the puddle! I sent a message to our kids back at the house (via text, of course) and encouraged them to come see the goings on. After all, it’s not every day you encounter a toad, umm, party.
At one point, we witnessed a tumbling threesome and were concerned about the female being held under water for long periods of time. In doing research later, I learned that the weight of two males can indeed cause the death of the female if she cannot get to the surface to breath. Fortunately during this mating session everyone came out of the water unscathed.
The next day, we revisited the spot and found it completely devoid of raucous toad shenanigans. However, the seep was loaded with eggs! Much to my surprise, when I reached in to touch a gooey cluster, they did not break apart individually. Instead, I discovered that they were linked together in long strands that were tangled in coils like a pile of abandoned old telephone cords. It turns out, there’s a distinct difference between toad eggs and frog eggs.
Toad or Frog Eggs?
Once you know what to look for, toad eggs are easy to recognize. They are white on top and black on bottom. The female lays 4,000-8,000 eggs in two long strands at a time, side-by-side. They may be 20′-60′ in length if stretched out! These eggs are embedded within a sticky translucent gel that resembles beads strung on a necklace. As soon as the eggs emerge from the female, the male fertilizes them with sperm. They will hatch in 3-12 days depending on how warm the water temperature is. The warmer the water, the more quickly hatching will occur.
Several weeks later, we went once again to check on the toad eggs. This time, the water was teeming with life! Thousands of black tadpoles wriggled around in undulating swarms. It would be another 4-6 weeks before they metamorphose from this larval stage into terrestrial toadlets.
From the time they hatch until they grow legs and crawl into the woods, these babies are on their own with no parental supervision. Many will die from predation by snakes, raccoons, turtles and birds. Though we checked on them several times, we were disappointed that we missed getting to see any tiny toadlets leaving the seep.
A Closer Look: Toad or Frog?
It is there my story comes to an end. This unique experience led to hours upon hours of researching everything I could find out about toads! Ultimately, that led to even more research on… frogs! You see, if you want to get technical, all toads are frogs. Yet, not all frogs are toads. Huh? You probably just read that twice. Let me explain. What that means is both animals are classified under the order of tailless, carnivorous amphibians called “frogs” (or Anura in ancient Greek, meaning without a tail). They are a diverse group with over 5,000 species in this order.
If you’d like to jump a little deeper into this froggy gray area (see what I did there?), you’ve come to the right place. Over-sharing about things I’m fascinated by (but not actually an expert on) is my strong suit! So, what are we waiting for? Let’s get started! It’s probably best to figure out how to identify what most of us recognize as “toads” and “frogs” by taking a look at some of the general characteristics which make them unique.
- Rough, bumpy skin that is relatively dry and often brown, green, or grey.
- Thicker skin enables them to wander farther from a water source than a frog.
- Some toads have parotoid glands (found on their neck, back, and shoulders) that are a defense against predators. The glands secrete fluids (bufotoxins) that are toxic if ingested. Don’t lick toads.
- They have broad, squat bodies and move relatively slowly.
- Shorter legs mean that toads have a tendency to walk or take small hops.
- They are ground dwellers.
- Mostly smooth, moist skin that may be green, brown, or a host of vibrant colors.
- Very long hind legs are made for jumping. Their legs are longer than their entire body and head combined.
- Back feet are webbed making them powerful swimmers.
- Unlike toothless toads, most frogs are equipped with teeth on their upper jaw and roof of their mouth to help hold prey captive. No, frogs don’t bite.
- They often have a more lean, athletic, streamline appearance.
- Frogs can be found both on the ground or in trees.
*These are generalities simplified for a quick identification. With thousands of species across the globe, there are bound to be exceptions to general rules.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Frogs and toads have a tympanic membrane (eardrum located behind the eye) that protects their inner ear. It is actually connected to their lungs as part of a complex system that allows them to make loud noises without hurting their own ears!
- These amphibians do not drink. At least, not like mammals do. They absorb necessary moisture through their skin. When re-hydrating, frogs and toads assume a posture called “water absorption response”. This involves thrusting their hind limbs backwards and pressing their belly onto a surface that contains water.
- Frogs eat their prey whole. They use their eyes to help them swallow food! As the frog blinks, its eyeballs push downward. This motion creates a bulge in the roof of its mouth. The bulge then aids in squeezing food down the back of the frog’s throat.
A Helping Hand
“Frogs are some of the most fragile, most environmentally vulnerable species on Earth, which is why they are a good indicator species for the occurrence of habitat degradation. They are our ‘mining canaries’ for the entire planet. It’s the same permeable skin that sometimes serves in their defense that makes them more susceptible to environmental trauma and pollution. And the fact that across the world frogs are declining significantly in numbers and diversity is cause for great concern. Their demise could signify major problems for the global ecosystem.”William E. Hamilton, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Penn State New Kensington
If You Build It, They Will Come
One way to encourage more wildlife in your own backyard is to plant native perennials, shrubs, and trees. Natives are uniquely suited as host plants for many insects. Those insects feed our amphibians, reptiles, and birds, which in turn support all local wildlife in a complex food web!
Want to provide habitat for toads, frogs, dragonflies, and other wildlife? If you have enough space, you can create a beneficial water feature in your own yard! Brigitte was kind enough to share these photos of her pond with me. I have seen it in person and it is lovely! Pots of native Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) provide landing zones for dragonflies and damselflies. A wide, shallow beach area is ideal for allowing frogs easy access to the water. It is also a perfect place for birds to take a bath! She has even included submerged pieces of wood for amphibians or turtles to use for basking in the sun. More native plants and flowers surround the beach area to provide cover as well as food for pollinators. There is a lot of research required and even more work involved, but the end result is worth it!
Even if you do not have the space for a pond of this size, there are other ways to give toads and frogs a helping hand!
- Convert soggy areas of your yard into a rain garden with native plant species.
- Replace areas of lawn with a pollinator garden and include a prefab or homemade “Frog House”.
- Add water-loving native perennials or shrubs that provide shade and cover along a dry creek bed.
- As these amphibians are very sensitive to toxins in their environment, avoid the use of chemicals (insecticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers) in your yard as much as possible.
- Leave some portions of your yard or garden “untidy”. Leaf litter debris or chop-and-drop clippings can provide cover and moist areas that are desirable to wildlife.
A Final Thought
We live in a world where critical habitat areas are shrinking by the day. It is more important now than ever before to provide a safe haven, a way station, a piece of unadulterated land where wildlife can breathe, breed, and be free to live as nature intended. I’m ready to do what I can with what I have. Are you?