The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Hoptoads
Jim Dillard, Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Mineral Wells

The thing about fox terriers is they’re born to hunt and it doesn’t matter what. There’s not much that escapes their acute sense of smell and vision. Anything that moves is fare game. You can make a good squirrel hunting dog out of one or just a loyal yard dog. Ours is queen of her backyard domain and nothing passes through or lives there without her consent or approval. Slow moving squirrels, alley cats, ground snakes, grasshoppers, birds and lizards are at risk. Only old Whiskers the cat and hoptoads are tolerated.

Her first encounter with a hoptoad was one she never forgot. She just couldn’t figure out how such an easy catch could taste sooooo bad. After a bout of coughing, hacking and foaming at the mouth, she released the fiend and decided that maybe having a hoptoad or two in her backyard wasn’t all that bad. From then on, she only herded them around but kept her distance. Now, I can just say “toad” and she looks the other way. Old Whiskers just yawns and goes back to sleep. I imagine young coyotes and other predators have had similar experiences with hoptoads here in Cross Timbers Country.

True toads are in the Family Bufonidae and are characterized by their dry warty skin, short stout forelegs, longer hind legs and prominent parotoid glands. These toxin-secreting “shoulder glands” produce a bitter tasting substance that’s offensive to most predators that quickly learn toads are to be left alone. However, hog-nosed snakes are toad-proof. Their large adrenal glands provide resistance to the toxic digitaloid poisons produced by toads which are a large part of their diet. Toads also have acute hearing provided by well developed ears and a conspicuous tympanum (eardrum) on each side of their head.

Of the nine species of toads in Texas, four are found here in Cross Timbers Country. With a little close examination, it’s not too hard to figure out who’s who. Key identifying characteristics include the shape and prominence of cranial crests, presence or absence of a vertebral strip, shape of parotoid glands, skin coloration of the chest, and arrangement of body spots. In addition, each species has its own distinctive call to communicate toad to toad and is very useful in species identification. And remember, toads hop – frogs leap.

Woodhouse’s toad (Bufo woodhouesii woodhouseii) is perhaps the largest at four to five inches. It’s found throughout central and north-central Texas and into the Panhandle in both rural and urban settings. It was named for Samuel Washington Woodhouse, a surgeon and naturalist that made explorations into the Southwestern U.S. in the mid-19th century. I has a distinct light colored vertebral stripe that begins on the nose and extends down the middle of the back. Overall skin coloration on the back of this round toad is greenish-brown to yellowish-brown with black blotches surrounding brownish warts. The chest is usually unspotted and its dark cranial crests touch the parotoid glands behind the eyes. Parotoid glands are narrow and arched slightly downward. Its call is a loud, nasal waaaahing. This toad is dependant on standing water sources for survival and reproduction.

Texas toads (B. speciosus) are medium size at about three inches. They’re found in grasslands, meadows, pastures and open woodlands throughout most of the state except for East Texas and the northern Panhandle. This toad species prefers sandy soils it can burrow into during periods of heat or drought. They emerge at night to feed or during rainfall events. A mid-dorsal stripe is absent and its coloration is olive-gray to olive-brown. Texas toads lack a well defined dorsal pattern or well developed cranial crests. Their parotoid glands are widely spaced and about half as wide as long. On each hind foot there are two black tubercles.

The red spotted toad (B. punctatus) is one of the smallest toad species at around one and one half to two and one quarter inches. In Texas, it’s found in the western two-thirds of the state, preferring to live around permanent to semi-permanent water sources in otherwise arid country. It’s more likely to be found in rocky terrain where they live under rocks and in crevices. The round parotoid glands are about the same size as their eyes and no cranial crests are present. Body coloration may be brown, olive, tan, reddish or gray and usually there is a scattering of red spots. Small black spots dot their white belly. Overall body shape is somewhat flattened with the head being angular and pointed. The call of males is a high-pitch melodious trill that may last from four to 10 seconds. Red spotted toads are nocturnal and most active on humid or rainy nights.

The colorful little eastern green toad subspecies B. debilis debilis is found along persistent streams and ponds in arid to semiarid habitats throughout the central-western third of Texas from the eastern Panhandle south into northern Mexico. They’re our smallest toad species and measure from one and one quarter up to two inches. Their body and head is flattened. Coloration is bright grass green with unconnected dark green or black dots with warts on the back and legs. The parotoid glands are large and extend down onto the sides of their neck. Their call is a shrill cricket-like trill that sounds somewhat like an electronic alarm. Unless you hear one or go looking, you’re not likely to find them. Eastern green toads spend the day under vegetation or rocks in wet places and only come out to feed late in the evening, at night or early in the morning.

Handling toads will not give you warts – I repeat, handling toads will not give you warts. Warts are caused by viruses. Secretions from their parotoid glands may cause irritation to your mucous membranes, so do like your mama says and wash your hands after picking up hoptoads. When my daughter was little, she used to pick them up by the bucketsful from our yard and neighborhood. After we got our fox terrier, toad traffic slowed. I still occasionally hear one calling on damp, rainy spring or summer nights from somewhere off in the distance. Listening to hoptoad music is soothing to the soul. Until next time, I’ll see you down a Cross Timbers Country road and God Bless America!

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