by Leslie Anthony
You can never be sure what you’ll run into while recreating in the great outdoors. But when it comes to amphibians you can be sure of this: they’ll be more surprised than you are.
Whether it’s their small size, cryptic coloration, or secretive ways, B.C.’s amphibians are generally masters of not being seen. Most salamanders spend their lives burrowing or under cover in the forest. The Pacific Tailed Frog is a nocturnal phantom of rocky spray zones around cascades, its tadpoles clinging by powerful sucker to the underside of rocks. The Red-legged Frog and Rough-skinned Newt never stray far from the wetlands they call home. Only the Western Toad, it seems, likes to pack its bags and get around. Which is probably why so many of my friends send me “What’s this?” photos of Anaxyrus boreas this time of year (three last week alone). Yes, whether you’re out hiking, biking, kayaking or even playing disc golf, Mr. Toad is the most likely amphibian to say hi. Since they’re startlingly cool as well as in need of protection in B.C., here’s what you need to know about them.
Adult toads are stocky (5.5-14.5 cm) with short legs. Unlike frogs, the skin is dry and bumpy and ranges from pale green to grey, dark brown, or even red with a mute-to-bright stripe down the back. Behind each eye is a kidney-shaped parotoid gland that exudes nasty stuff when the animal is threatened. The toad diet (not recommended) consists of flying insects, ants, beetles, spiders, centipedes, slugs, and earthworms.
Males are generally smaller and have dark pads on their thumbs that help them cling to females during mating—a wise adaptation given the marathon task of getting this done without a penis. Adult toads migrate to wetland breeding sites in early spring for what amounts to some pretty straightforward pub-style cruising: the males search for available females, clasp them from behind, and then fertilize the eggs as they’re deposited in the water (they resemble tiny black pearls laid single file in jelly strings). Since females average 12,000 eggs (99% won’t survive), that’s a lot of fertilizing—and hanging on.
The eggs hatch in 3-12 days depending on water temperature. The black tadpoles then swarm in groups through the warmest water available, feeding on aquatic plants, detritus and algae. After 6-8 weeks they metamorphose into 6 mm toadlets and get the heck out of dodge; you often see these little guys (the size of your baby fingernail) struggling across trails and roadways away from ponds in late summer. This is when they’re most in need of human help to keep from getting squashed by knobby tires or Vibram soles, so try to avoid hiking of biking in such areas for the few days required for emerging toads to disperse into the forest.
The Western Toad is found west of the Rockies from Mexico to southern Alaska in semi-arid and wet forest at elevations up to 2,250 metres. Severe population declines in B.C. have the species yellow-listed—of conservation concern and protected under the Wildlife Act. The good news is you can learn about protecting toads and their habitat and, should you come across them in your travels or fun-hogging, contribute sighting information at B.C. Frogwatch.