American Toad – Dreaming Triller
A Nature Video by Lang Elliott
For me, the trilling of toads in spring marks a rite of passage … my personal passage from the leading edge of spring into its full-bodied explosion of creativity. When I hear the toads singing, wildflowers bloom below, leaves unfurl above, and songbirds drip from the sky like rain. Toad trills not only lift my spirit, they draw me out of myself and thrust me headlong into the full glory of spring’s unfolding. Henry David Thoreau, listening to the distant trills of toads on a warm spring day, noticed the dream-like quality of their sounds, so easily missed by ears untuned. Reflecting on the experience months later, he wrote “That afternoon the dream of the toads rang through the elms by Little River and affected the thoughts of men, though they were not conscious that they heard it” (see full quote below). Most certainly, the toads are dreaming for themselves. But maybe we are also meant to hear their music. The toads are voicing their celebration, and if we but allow ourselves to listen, to sink into their songs, we too may enjoy their ecstasy and deeply touch the flowering of spring.
ADD TOAD DREAMS SOUNDSCAPE HERE
Our most familiar “hop toad,” the American Toad is a wide-ranging species, found throughout much of eastern and central United States and Canada (see range map). Wandering far from water after the breeding season, toads may be found in a wide variety of habitats, including residential yards and gardens where they may be found catching insects attracted to outdoor lights.
The American Toad’s scientific name is in a bit of confusion. For decades, it was Bufo americanus, with the toad placed into genus Bufo, the “True Toads.” However, recent genetic studies suggest that all our North American Bufo species are sufficiently different from European Bufo to warrant a new generic name, with Anaxyrus being proposed. Although this change has been controversial, with many biologists resisting it, it appears that the new designation is sticking, and the American Toad is now referred to as Anaxyrus americanus. Change happens … get used to it!
American Toads prefer to breed in temporary bodies of water that are fish-free (pools, ditches, and flooded ares), although they may also breed along the marshy edges of permanent lakes and ponds. The breeding season lasts only a week or two, beginning as early as March in southern areas and as late as June at high latitudes and elevations.
Males generally call from stationary positions and wait for females to come to them, although in dense choruses males may move around in search of females. Fights over females are common, with large males usually displacing small ones. Males will try to mount most anything that brushes up against them, not only other males but also other species of frogs and even salamanders. Several males may try to mount a single receptive female, forming “toad knots” where the female is literally being suffocated by her male suitors (a situation that is not good for either sex; see photo to right and “Toad Orgy” video below). In areas of overlap, American Toads occasionally hybridize with Fowler’s Toads, a closely related species.
Females that have been mounted by single males swim to isolated locations where they lay thousands of eggs in long, bead-like strings. The male sheds sperm on the eggs as they are laid. So many eggs are laid that the pair can actually become entangled by the eggs, forcing them to struggle to escape once they’ve completed their task (see “Toad Orgy” video below).
The advertisement call of the male is a dreamlike trill that lasts from five or ten seconds up to around thirty seconds. Males that have been mounted by another male respond by vibrating their mid-section and giving chirp-like “release calls” (click or tap the “Voice” tab for audio examples).
1. The “Advertisement Call” of the male is a long melodic trill, lasting from five to thirty seconds. Pleasing from a distance, trills can’t be a bit overwhelming when heard from close by:
2. From a distance, choruses can be magical and dreamlike, with different males singing on slightly different pitches, alternating and overlapping one another to produce a pleasing effect:
3. A chirping “Release Call” is given by a male when grasped or mounted by another male. At the same time, he vibrates his mid-section. The message to the other male is something like “Let go, you idiot, can’t you see that I’m a male!”:
What You Can Do:
While you are likely to find toads on the ground outside the breeding season, the most fun can be had by homing-in on breeding groups. Breeding time will vary depending on latitude and altitude, but in general the American Toad breeds when spring is in full swing, when wildflowers are blooming and the warblers are beginning to show their faces.
The way to find them is to listen for their trills. During peak weather, they breed both day and night, along the edges of ponds and lakes, in ditches next to roads, and in vernal pools. Their habitats are diverse. I’ve found them in ponds in the middle of large fields, in flooded pools in urban or suburban areas, and in wetlands in remote forested and mountainous areas. Once you become aware of their trills, you will be surprised where you will find them breeding.
Breeding congregations are fairly tolerant of your approach. While the toads may become alarmed and dive underwater, you need only wait motionless for a few minutes and they’ll soon become active again. Especially at night, it is possible to get really close to singing males and you may even have the opportunity to gently squeeze one’s pouch when it sings (yes, you’ll be able to feel the vibrations as it calls).
Unlike many of our smaller frogs (eg. Spring Peepers), American Toads are easy to spot. Look for excited groupings of males and amplexus pairs in shallow water. Males often try to mount one another. When that happens, the male who is mounted will respond with chirping release calls, accompanied by a vibration of his mid-section. If the male on top does not let go, a struggle ensues as the male on the bottom tries to free himself. If you wiggle your finger in front of an excited male, he may actually try to mount your finger. If he does, you’ll be surprised at how strong he is and how reluctant he is to let go.
Listen for chirping sounds, the “release calls” of a male, which indicate he has been mounted by another male. A fun exercise is to sit quietly in the dark, enjoying the trills and listening for chirps. When chirps are heard, quickly shine a flashlight in the direction of the source and watch the two males struggle with one another, as the one on the bottom desperately tries to shake off his mounter.
In large groups, look for “toad knots” where several males are grasping at a single female. There is quite an affair, with the knot literally rolling around in the water as the males struggle. The male that is in the proper amplexus position (= the one right on top the female) tries desperately to kick the other males away. The female either does nothing or tries to dislodge some of the males by diving. She won’t be able to breed unless she ends up with just a single male on top. Some females are actually smothered to death by their suitors, a result that is clearly maladaptive.
Amplexus pairs generally move toward the periphery of the group. When the grouping is large, it is usually quite easy to find females laying their strings of eggs. The male sits on top and sheds sperm on the eggs as they are laid (this is difficult to observe because it happens under his rear end, hidden from view). Once the eggs are laid, the male lets go and the female leaves the pond. The male, however, may commence singing again in hopes of finding yet another female to mate with.
At any one location. your window of opportunity will be small. The bulk of breeding may occur in a single day, or over just two or three days. Wham bam, thankya mam … it’s usually over in a flash, so you’ll need to get out there on location as soon as you hear the trilling. If you miss the event in one spot, take heart, you may find a different group breeding somewhere else several days (or even a week or two) later.
Toad Orgy Video:
The following video features a very active breeding group of American Toads, reaching their peak on a warm spring afternoon. Warning … this is X-Rated footage!
I well remember the time this year when I first heard the dream of the toads. I was laying out house-lots on Little River in Haverhill. We had had some raw, cold and wet weather. But this day was remarkably warm and pleasant, and I had thrown off my outside coat. I was going home to dinner, past a shallow pool, which was green with springing grass, and where a new house was about being erected, when it occurred to me that I heard the dream of the toad. It rang through and filled all the air, though I had not heard it once. And I turned my companion’s attention to it, but he did not appear to perceive it as a new sound in the air. Loud and prevailing as it is, most men do not notice it at all. It is to them, perchance, a sort of simmering or seething of all nature. That afternoon the dream of the toads rang through the elms by Little River and affected the thoughts of men, though they were not conscious that they heard it … How watchful we must be to keep the crystal well that we were made, clear!
Notes from the Author (Lang Elliott):
The video at the top of the page is constructed of footage I gathered way back in 2010. I used a digital single lens reflex, I believe the Canon 5D MarkII, and video was a new thing for me. In retrospect, I love the cinematic effect of using a low f-stop, creating very dreamy, out-of-focus backgrounds. The opening segment is my favorite … watching him edge back and disappear underwater in a pronounced blur.
The mating frenzy video was done using a small Canon camcorder, the XA-10. I had just purchased the camcorder and I ended up overexposing all the clips I made that afternoon. Luckily, I was able to fix the footage, more or less. I also had a lousy tripod, which made it impossible to accomplish smooth pans (noticeable somewhat at the beginning). Oh well, live and learn … or at least just live! I look forward to finding another great frenzy with several knots to choose from. When this finally happens, I vow to work nonstop to get award-winning footage, from every angle imaginable! Well, why the heck knot?
Learn more about Lang at langelliott.com
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