- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
Mostly I hear them calling from pond shallows in spring and early summer. If I look closely, I can see males sitting in inch-deep water with bulging throats while trilling or pairs floating while spawning in the pond.
Sometimes I see a few on rural roads at night with my car headlights. There, they snap up earthworms and insects. And occasionally I spot one hopping across leaf-covered, woodland floors.
American toads and Woodhouse’s toads, also known as Fowler’s toads, commonly live in southeastern Pennsylvania and across much of the United States.
Like their relatives, the frogs, adult toads are tailless amphibians, starting life in still, shallow water as tadpoles with gills and swimming tails, like fish, but living the rest of their lives on land with legs and lungs that breathe air.
Frogs, with their smooth, moist skins, stay close to water to survive, but toads, with bumpy, dry skins that retain bodily fluids, roam from water to meadows, fields, and woodland floors. But there they need some moisture to live, a reason they hide in damp places during daytime.
These related toads are similar in appearance. Both are mostly nocturnal, about 4 inches long at maturity, and basically brown, which blends them into their habitats of soil, sand, and dead-leaf carpets on forest floors.
Both have rough skins and lovely eyes with horizontal pupils. Both species have a bulging paratoid gland behind each eardrum. Each gland is filled with liquid that tastes bad to predators.
And males of both kinds sit upright in inch-deep water to call for mates for spawning in those shallows. But their vocalizations differ, enabling us to identify them.
Male American toads enter shallow water in many ponds in southeastern Pennsylvania during April. There, they puff their dark throats and emit pleasant, musical trills that last up to 30 seconds each.
Able to hear well, one male starts trilling and others join in, creating a chorus that attracts female American toads to them for mating and spawning.
Male Fowler’s toads spawn much the same way, except their nasal trills—“wwaaaahh”—last for two seconds and bring the genders together for spawning. Fowler’s toads spawn from late May into early July, which is another way to identify them.
Frog and toad eggs are fertilized externally while each pair is coupled in shallow water. Gelatinous strings of toad eggs by the thousands attach to aquatic vegetation and immersed tree twigs.
Swarms of black tadpoles hatch from those eggs within a few days. Those tads eat algae and decayed plant and animal material in the shallows, grow legs and lungs as their tails become absorbed, and hop onto land, all within a few months.
Toads are interesting critters that do us no harm. And they are attractive in their camouflaged way. Try to tolerate their presence when you spot them.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.