Nature program highlights physical and behavioral characteristics
By Alison Rooney
As part of the ongoing series of nature programs co-sponsored by the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum and the Hudson Highlands Land Trust, one of the museum’s educators, Carl Heitmuller gave a presentation called “Totally Toads” this spring at Hubbard Lodge. It was a bit of a misnomer, as mention of frogs crept in now and again, but an overview of toads it was, warts (not really — a misconception) and all.
The first issue addressed was that of the question most commonly asked: “What’s the difference between frogs and toads?”
Heitmuller sought answers from a pretty expert 8-year-old, Ryan Forrester (who, it must be mentioned, called himself “more interested in frog — especially poison dart ones,”) before the start of the program, prompting Heitmuller’s retort: “We’ll change that today!” Forrester ran off a few differences:
“They live on land.”
“Yes, they’re terrestrial,” replied Heitmuller.
Forrester: “They’re brownish.”
“Yes, although frogs can be that way, too, as well as other colors. For instance a tree frog can change color from dark grey to almost white.”
Heitmuller went on to describe a few more differences:
Toads’ toes are not webbed, because they are diggers, and they’re not very good swimmers. Toads have bumpy skin, and those bumps are not warts, they’re glands, and they’re not slimy, nor do they give humans warts when you touch them. The warts help them camouflage themselves. Toads have a cloaca, used for laying eggs and going to the bathroom. Toads store water in their thick skin, and they only go into the water when it’s time to lay eggs. They have bones, but no teeth. They breathe stretching their skin in and out. Their eyes are near the top of their head. Toads have shorter legs than frogs. They don’t jump, instead they hop and walk just plain walk, one leg first and then the other.
Pointing out the differences between the two main types of toads found regionally, the Fowler’s Toad and the American Toad, Heitmuller noted that the Fowler’s variety was drawn to a more sandy habitat and also displayed three or four warts in each of the dorsal spots while the American had just one or two such spots.
Imitating the sounds, Heitmuller discussed how the toad “sings” making trilling sounds, long passages, unlike the short bursts of frogs, designed to attract females and establish spots to mate, sometimes leading to fights in ponds where often many more males than females gather. “The male frog pulls in air through the nostrils and forces a vibration, which makes the sound. The loudest toads are usually the ones who find a mate. The ‘girls’ don’t make noises. The eggs, which the toads lay in shallow water, are long strands, usually in a twist, sometimes around a hundred eggs on a chain.”
Heitmuller then described the metamorphosis period, which begins within a week of birth, when the tadpoles, still tiny, perhaps three-eighths of an inch long and black in color, start to alter and, within a month are hatched and gone, seemingly magically turned into toadlets. Tadpoles take in water through their mouths and let it out through gills. Ultimately the tadpole absorbs its own tail while turning into a carnivore. The toad it turns into is, at first, tiny, the size of a penny. They eat insects of virtually any kind: ants, centipedes, beetles, moths, crickets and spiders, and occasionally small snakes too.
They, in turn, are predated by birds, including herons and the hog-nosed snake which actually is designed to eat them, having teeth in the back of their mouths which pop open the puffed up part — the parotid gland — of the toads from which the toads squirt out the noxious spray which acts as a toxin to most other species, but not the hognose snake.
At the end of the presentation, attendees were invited to make “toad abodes” out of small terracotta pots cracked to give an opening. Finally, Heitmuller posed a final question to Forrester: “So, which are more interesting now: frogs or toads?”
Forrester gave a politician’s reply: “I would say about the same.”
This nature series, suitable for both adults and children, continues on Mother’s Day, May 11, with a Mother Nature Hike for Moms followed by a June 8 talk on Cottontail Rabbits. Workshops are recommended for adults with or without children, and for children ages 5 and up. Admission is $7 for adults and $5 for children. All programs support the care of HHNM’s animals at the Wildlife Education Center in Cornwall. Visit hhnaturemuseum.org for more information, or call 845-534-5506, ext. 204.
Photos by A. Rooney