Monday, August 28, 2023

Eastern American Toad

The dour expression of the common toad reminds one of the proverbial grumpy old man. This countenance, in my opinion, gives them an endearing quality. As children, toads are one of the first wild animals we come in contact with that we find easy to capture and are not likely to be afraid of. Missouri is home to several species of toads, and the Eastern American toad (Anaxyrus americanus americanus) is without a doubt the most common type we will encounter. They are found throughout the Eastern United States and portions of Canada, and occur in many types of habitats, including yards, gardens, fields, agricultural areas, barnyards, porches, and walkways. The species name of the American toad is Anaxyrus, which comes from a Greek word that translates to mean King or Chief, and as one of the largest toads native to the United States it is an apt descriptor. They may reach lengths up to four inches with males being smaller than females.


They vary in color, and may be gray, brown, olive, or even a reddish orange. However, they are capable of changing color to some degree depending on many factors including humidity, environmental stressors, temperatures and even the color of the habitat where they live.  Sometimes there is a light stripe visible along their back and two warts on each spot located along the back, as well as large spiny warts on the legs. Usually, the belly is mottled with black or charcoal gray splotches. There are large glands located behind the eyes alongside the head. These are the paratoid glands and contain toxins called bufotoxins. These toxins are considered harmless to humans, although they may irritate the eyes, or mucus membranes. 

 Handling toads is often said to cause warts in humans. This is a falsehood, although, if you are allergic or sensitive to the substance they secrete, your skin may form painless water blisters. For obvious reasons, don’t lick the toads! To dogs, and other small mammals, however, they can be incredibly toxic and, in some cases, make your pet very sick and in need of veterinarian care. While capable of secreting toxins and poisoning animals who come in contact with them, they usually rely on camouflage, or retreat as a first line of defense.

There are some animals that have adapted to eating toads as a main part of their diet, one of the most notable is the hognose snake. These snakes have a mild toxin they deliver through rear fangs into the toad to paralyze it. This prevents it from hopping away. If they capture the toad prior to delivering this toxin they have another adaptation that aids them in eating toads. When a toad is threatened with predation, they will inflate their lungs, lower their head, and lift their body, thus making themselves larger, the snake is now faced with a much larger meal than it anticipated. It will use those rear fangs to puncture the toad, effectively deflating it with these specially adapted toad poppers.

Other animals are known to eat toads, including water snakes, garter snakes, screech owls, crows, and occasionally striped skunks. As tadpoles they are preyed upon by a wider variety of predators, including fish, ducks, aquatic invertebrates, newts, and crayfish. One pond was estimated by scientists to contain over 200,000 toad tadpoles, none of those tadpoles survived to the toadlet stage as they were preyed upon before reaching their final molt into life on land. In the tadpole stage they feed on algae, aquatic plants, dead fish, and other tadpoles. As adults they feed on invertebrates like ants, beetles, and moths as well as earthworms. Toads lack the ability to chew their food adequately, so they have evolved a work around to this problem, by using their eyes! Yes, that is correct, they use their eyes. Toads have large eyes, and after grabbing a tasty meal in the form of a beetle (for example), their eyes are specially adapted to press down into the mouth effectively pushing the insect from their sticky tongue and forcing it down the throat so it may be swallowed. Toads, like frogs do not drink water, instead hydration is achieved by soaking in available water. Toads have drier skin and are able to tolerate longer periods away form water, whereas their cousins the frogs have higher hydration needs to maintain their slimy secretions for respiration through their skin.


American toads have excellent eyesight and hearing, and it is believed they use their hearing to detect rains, from underground, which may signal the return of spring. Males emerge from hibernation first, and guided by an internal homing device they will migrate back to the area where they were conceived, often to the exact spot! It is believed they use the moon to navigate to their location of birth. This journey may be as little as a few hundred meters or as much as a few miles. Once males arrive to the breeding grounds, usually in April or early May, they begin calling in earnest to attract females which will appear on the landscape up to a week later. Females, using their acute hearing are able to distinguish her own kind among a chorus of many species of frogs and toads that may be sharing the same area. In fact frogs and toads are the only amphibians to utilize organized sound. They have distress calls, mating calls and calls to warn others of their kind that danger is nearby.

She will select the healthiest and most virile male to mate with based on the length and strength of his calling abilities. After mating, the female will lay up to 20,000 eggs in long strands often attached to plant matter within a pond, wetland, or other water source. Occasionally she will lay them along the bottom of a pond. In a few days the eggs will hatch into tiny black tadpoles. 


In about a month, seemingly all at once, hundreds or even thousands of toadlets will emerge from their watery homes. These aggregations of tiny toadlets often follow each other in unison along sandy shores of ponds, streams, and wetlands. Eventually they will shed their skins, and molt into a larger version of themselves. After multiple sheds they will reach their full adult size, typically by mid-summer. At this time, they will disperse into the landscape and set up a territory that typically ranges up to a half mile. Although in some cases this may be as much as a mile. American toads may live up to five years in the wild, with some reports claiming there are records of them living up to thirty years in captivity. Although I think these claims are exaggerated, as that would be an exceedingly long time for any amphibian to live.

Toads, along with frogs began appearing 200 million years ago, a full 30 million years before dinosaurs! For centuries they have fascinated humans, and are often the stuff of legends, and folklore. Pliny the elder referred to them as bramblefrogs, for their preferred life among the brambles and forests. Many misconceptions about toads come from their mythological association with witches. Toads were often considered familiars, or supernatural entities in the guise of a toad, that would assist witches in their practice of magic. These myths were fed by stories and legends with little basis in fact.


Even William Shakespeare in at least two of his works, MacBeth and As you Like It bespoke of the lowly toad.


 In Macbeth he waxed poetically: 

“Round the cauldron go;

In the poison’d entrails throw

Toad, that under cold stone

Days and nights has thirty-one

Swelter’d venom sleeping got

Boil thou first; the charmed pot”


In As You Like it Shakespeare had this eloquent prose to share:

"Sweet are the use of adversity

Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous

Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,

Find tongues in trees, books in running brooks.

Sermons in stones, and good in everything

I would not change."


In Germany it was believed the toad took up his abode in the poisonous hemlock plant. The toad was said to suck the poison from the plant thus gaining his own available toxins. Germans even referred to the deadly nightshade plant as the toad flower. As you can see the unassuming, shy toad has had an ancestry steeped in mythology, misconceptions, and witchcraft. Perhaps no other animals is as underserving of his reputation as is the toad. These sour-faced amphibians provide insect and slug control, feed a hungry population of various animals and whether you are three or ninety-three are sure to delight us with their presence.



Monday, August 21, 2023

Nine-Banded Armadillo


One of the most unusual animals to call Missouri home is the nine-banded armadillo. This animal goes by many names including common long-nose armadillo, nine-banded long-nosed armadillo, little armored one, and even possum on the half shell, but no matter what name you chose to call them, they are easily the most recognized of Missouri’s mammals. The armor they possess covers most of their body including the back, sides, tail, head, and outer portion of the legs. The underbelly and inner portion of the legs is free of armor and instead made up of a tough skin covered in coarse hair. The shell is made up of ossified dermal scutes covered in scales made up of keratin (the same substance as our fingernails). The scales are connected by flexible bands of skin. There are typically nine bands across the back and sides, but this may vary by region or genetics and be anywhere from seven to eleven bands. Unlike popular belief they cannot roll themselves into a tight ball for protection, like their South American cousin, the three-banded armadillo can. So how do they protect themselves from predation? They can run short distances at speeds up to 30 MPH and will flee a predator if they can. If this is not possible, they can quickly dig a shallow trench and lodge themselves into it. They are nearly impossible to remove from this shallow burrow. Common predators of armadillos include coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, alligators, bobcats, and large raptors. Typically, these predators are going to hunt juvenile armadillos as their shells are not fully hardened and are easier to kill. However, the main threat to their survival is humans. They are often hunted for their meat, which is said to taste much like pork, which also earned them another common name of “poor man’s pork”. During the Great Depression they were frequently consumed for protein which earned them the name of Hoovers hog. Many blamed president Herbert Hoover for the depression and the state of the Country at that time. Hence the name Hoover hog. They are also killed because of their sometimes preference for poultry and wild game bird eggs. They are even killed for their shells which are used in the novelty market and sold as baskets, helmets, and other tacky decorations.

If sufficiently startled, they are capable of jumping three to four feet in the air. This explains why we see so many dead along the roadways as we travel south. I remember several years ago while camping at Truman State Park I was driving to the bath house when up ahead I spotted an armadillo in the headlights. As I got closer, the sudden appearance of my car scared him and he jumped straight into the air, front legs extended upwards as if he was the victim of a holdup. It was without a doubt one of the funniest things I have ever witnessed out of a wild animal. This behavior certainly seems counterproductive to survival.

Originally from South America, they began their expansion north into Central America, and eventually North America during the Great American Interchange. Approximately 2.7 million years ago the volcanic Isthmus of Panama rose up creating a land bridge. This formation allowed animals from both North and South America to make large migrations in either direction. By the late 1800’s they crossed the border of Mexico into Texas via the Rio Grande. Armadillos have two special adaptations which allow them to cross bodies of water. They may inflate their lungs and intestines and float to their destination, or maybe they are in the mood for a stroll, and they will submerge themselves and walk along the bottom of the riverbed. With the ability to hold their breath for up to six minutes you can easily see how they navigate rivers and move into new locations. It is believed developing the ability to hold their breath for such a long period of time was developed as an adaptation to allow them to keep their snouts submerged in soil for extended periods of foraging. By 1995 they were well established in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida. Although the population in Florida was purposefully introduced and did not happen by natural expansion. 2005 found their range expanded even further into Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Kentucky.

 Today their range continues to expand and sightings as far north as Virginia have been reported. In our own state of Missouri, it was believed they would not extend their range beyond the southern portion of our state. We now know this is not the case, as more and more sightings are being reported North of the Missouri river, including one recently spotted along the 102 River in Andrew County. With climate change drastically altering our weather patterns and creating warmer winters, the armadillo is finding it favorable to continue their northward journey and soon may be a common sight locally. Now it is a commonly held belief they may reach as far north as Ohio. This will be quite a feat for an animal that was said to not be able to expand beyond Texas and was originally adapted to warm humid weather conditions. Most likely their range will not extend too far west as the Great Plains and other areas out west tend to be dry and often experience harsher winters. They are prone to heat and water loss in cold, dry climates, therefore survival would be difficult. However, never say never.

Opinions about the armadillo moving northward into new territories is often met with a mixed bag of emotion. Many feel they will be an interesting and fun animal to observe (I am in this corner), but the opposing side does not agree. Armadillos can be destructive in their habits. Capable of digging fairly large burrows as well as excavating your lawn with their long schnoz looking for their favorite foods. They can very quickly cause unsightly holes throughout your yard.  Mild root damage to some plants may also occur as a result of their digging and rooting. Classified as insectivores, armadillos are known to feed on nearly 500 different foods, predominately invertebrates. Lacking good eyesight and hearing, they use their exceptionally well-developed sense of smell to locate invertebrates living as much as eight inches underground. Their favorites being termites, ants, and grubs. They have been observed rolling around on ant mounds to dislodge them. When the ants come charging out to defend the colony, they are instead devoured by a hungry armadillo using a sticky tongue, much like an anteater. A lesser portion of their diet is made up of small mammals, bird eggs and even carrion. As disgusting as it sounds, most likely they are after the maggots present on the carcass, rather than the carcass itself. Occasionally they will feed on fungi, tubers, and fruits.

Armadillos have one of the most unusual reproductive processes. They mate in summer, but the female will delay fertilization for three to four months to ensure the young will be born in a more favorable season. Gestation lasts four months. Here is where it gets interesting. The female will produce a single egg, which is divided into four and then fertilized, resulting in identical quadruplets. The pups remain in the burrow for three months before venturing out to follow their mom on foraging trips. At between six and twelve months of age they leave their mother and live life on their own. Armadillos are capable of living up to 20 years and may reach lengths up to forty-two inches, including the tail and weigh as much as 15 pounds with a record weight recorded at 23 pounds.

Because they nearly always have four identical pups, for many decades they have been used in human reproductive research. Scientists studying reproduction and multiple births find these animals invaluable to their work. Since each baby is an identical image of its siblings researchers administering medications to them are able to study the effects of the medication, knowing that the results will be from the medication alone and not any variations in the genes of the armadillos. They have also proved invaluable in the study of Hansen’s disease (leprosy), as they are one of the few animals capable of carrying the disease, with humans being a close second. Although leprosy has all but disappeared in our country, it continues to be an issue in poorer countries around the globe. Fortunately, no one in Missouri has ever died from an armadillo spreading the disease, but caution should always be used if you find yourself in the position of needing to handle one. Wear gloves.

This amazing, unusual, and arguably odd animal is well established in its range and expanding at an exponential rate. Soon we may be observing the armadillo in our own backyards excavating burrows and digging for insects. The little armored one, is a shy, unassuming, laid-back member of the animal kingdom with huge benefit to humans in the medical field and helps to control the damage many insects can and do cause. Learning to live with them may benefit us more than hinder us. 

Near Branson, Missouri

 Source for photos:

Picture #1 Hans Stieglitz - via Wikipedia

Picture #2 Chermundy---Via Wikipedia

Picture #3 National Wildlife Federation

Picture #4 Shelly Cox (myself)