In Praise of Toads

Linda Knox
Adams County Master Gardener

Not that they have been forgotten, but toads came to my attention again a few months ago. In a restaurant with antique games and books set out to amuse waiting customers, I happened upon a Lippincott’s Silent Reader for second graders printed in 1923. In a story on toads, it talked about how a farmer regarded toads as one of his best friends. According to the farmer, "one toad is worth five dollars a year."

Toads are as valuable today as they were in 1923. One source claims a toad can eat 86 flies in 10 minutes, several thousand insects in a month and 2,000 cutworms during a summer. Since they have been around for about 65 million years in pretty much the same form as we see them today, you could probably say toads are the original contributors to the concept of organic gardening.

Those who are not delighted by the appearance of the squatty little bug-eaters among their plants may be pleased to know that toads are nocturnal and usually seek cool damp shelter during daylight hours, thus keeping them out of view most of the time. Of course if you’re inclined, you might often observe their nightly meals being devoured near any light source because the light attracts many insects. As the Lippincott’s Silent Reader pointed out to its young readers, toads eat caterpillars, beetles, slugs and many other pests.

Frogs and toads belong to a classification of animals known as Anurans. Like frogs, "true toads" flick out their long sticky tongues more quickly than the human eye can see. Species of "true toads" number about 400, and the common American toad lives throughout the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />US and southeastern Canada. Since toads are awkward movers, their tongue speed and stickiness are extremely important in catching prey. Some toads even pull their eyeballs inwards and use the blinking action to swallow their food.

Recently the Baltimore Sun carried a news story concerning global studies that show numbers of amphibians have been going down. Of the 4,000 species, 2% are extinct and 43% are endangered. This threat to amphibians affects the entire environment.

Many studies over the last decade show that the numbers of frogs and toads have been declining. Biologists have collected information from Australia, Canada, India, Europe, Central and South America and much of the western US. There are organizations that are convinced the decline is occurring simultaneously worldwide. When numbers of particular species fall off, the problem may not be noticed immediately. For example, a strange frog in Costa Rica that incubates its eggs in its stomach has not been seen in years.

Suspected culprits include acid rain and the thinning of the ozone layer. Another possible cause may be the amounts of toxic compounds in the air that are dangerous to animals like toads and frogs that breathe through their skin. Some biologists believe a wide-spread fungus could be to blame. Others believe the decline is the result of natural environmental fluctuations that periodically occur. The greatest challenge is to identify a reason for the overall steady change and to do something about it if we can.

If you are fortunate to have toads in your own garden, you may want to invest in a toad house. Recently these structures have become commonplace in the garden departments of many stores. Toad houses can be ornate or simple, or you can simply create your own by propping a covering over some stones set to provide a cave or low hiding place. Water nearly will also help to attract a resident toad.

Although toads have many enemies, they protect themselves with a poisonous milky substance released by the paratoid glands near their eyes. Predators that have caught a toad soon learn of this unpleasant substance and are usually more than happy to release their nasty-tasting prey. This same substance does not, however, cause warts as many people believe.

Toads are fascinating little creatures, worthy of a space in anyone’s garden. Should you decide to investigate them, you will, no doubt, find them to be a "toadally" absorbing topic

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