Hoppy Toad Love


Male American ToadWe’ve been hearing a beautiful soft trilling sound drifting out of the wetlands these days. When I first heard this sound years ago, I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. It seemed to come more from inside my head than out. This is the mating call of the American toad (Bufo americanus). Thoreau called them the “dreaming toads” because their call is so dreamlike. I remember the first time I heard it coming from our pools in the back yard. When we followed the sound out to the pools we were astounded to find more than thirty toads in the area, some with their throats inflated like bubble gum, calling, swimming and hopping about. Of this large assembly of toads only five of them were female. Normally it is difficult to determine the gender/sex of a toad, but at this season, under these circumstances we could easily identify the five females because each female had a male clamped onto her back. During this “nuptial embrace”, known as amplexis, a male toad (or frog) usually holds the female from behind, with his front legs under her “armpits” administering sort of a reverse Heimlich maneuver. This stimulates her to release her eggs. As she squeezes out the eggs, he fertilizes them externally.

The rest of the “bachelor” males were swimming madly about, searching for a female to mate with. We soon learned that male toads cannot recognize the females of their species. They are quick to mount anything that remotely resembles a female toad — including other male toads. When a male amorously pounces on another male, the male being mounted will produce a vibration in the area of his chest where he is being clasped and emit a chirp of protest (known as a release call) and the offending male will immediately let go and continue on his search. (I swear you can almost hear him say, “Oops, excuse me.”)

Toad Hugging HandNot only are male toads unable to differentiate female toads from other males, they also have trouble differentiating the female toads from almost anything else that is about the same size. Excited males will even grab onto your hand, assuming that anything that doesn’t protest must be a female. He will grab your hand with his two front legs and if he finds your fingers attractive enough (and you don’t chirp in protest) he will hold on tight enough that you can even lift him out of the water. If you wiggle your fingers slightly he will kick his hind legs in seeming delight. One evening when my son Todd was about five years old and his wrists were just about the size of a toad’s body, we were investigating our pool full of courting toads. He ended up with a male toad clamped onto each wrist. He was quite a sight as he went running into the house delightedly squealing, “Look Mama!” with two enthusiastic, but misdirected toads humping away on his wrists. Ah yes the joys of Spring! Dream on Mr. Toad!