The American Toad

There is no shortage of native toads to be found in the U.S.-for free-but these awesome creatures may still deserve a space among the herptile pets that retailers offer for sale.


When I was a boy growing up on the edge of the Everglades, my mom always let me feed my pets. Every evening, right about sunset, she would take a pie plate, spread some wet dog food out across its bottom, and then hand it to me. I would go out on the back porch, place the doggie dinner at the bottom of the steps, get comfortable and wait. As the sun loomed larger and dimmer on its inevitable downward arc toward the horizon, golden eyes would appear amongst the leaf litter behind our house. Slowly but assuredly, an army would assemble, moving resolutely like a phalanx of zombies toward me and that pie plate. I would often giggle with joy seeing them advance, when I wasn’t simply transfixed with their majesty. These were my toads.

They were, in fact, not natives. I was witnessing one of the invasions of foreign animals to South Florida; this wave of foreigners were South American marine toads, which have caused environmental havoc to not only South Florida, but, famously, Australia. The documentary film Cane Toads covers the subject, and it is one of the most entertaining disaster films you are ever likely to witness; I highly recommend it.

I also vividly remember the venomous walking catfish scare, and the incursions by both Bahamian and Cuban anoles. The latest brouhaha over Burmese pythons is laughable in this context; Florida’s native animals have been in competition with an onslaught of foreigners since Europeans made their initial landfall.

But today we are discussing native American toads, which are among the more omnipresent forms of wildlife across the continental U.S. They are, in fact, so commonplace that, even with amphibians being the victim of worldwide decline, our local toads seem, by and large, durable and stolidly passive observers of the danger. The reality is that some toad species are in trouble, as well, but nowhere near as ubiquitously as frogs. Consequently, I know of no one making an attempt at commercial breeding projects for them, though that does seem inevitable. There is also not much place for them commercially in the pet trade. They certainly aren’t as flashy as most species of frogs. They don’t particularly display well in tanks. And why purchase something you might well find in your back yard? That said, I do always try to keep some toad representatives on hand in the store. They do have their fans, of which I am one.

Let’s dispel some of the myths about toads. Of course, the biggest, which I still hear with alarming frequency, is that toads cause warts. The genesis of this myth is the preponderance of small bumps, called tubercles, on the skin of most toads. Warts are caused by viruses, and their similarity to tubercles is nothing more than that: a similarity. More on those tubercles anon.

Toads have a historical reputation for ugliness, which is as undeserved as it is common. My older brother used to tease me by saying I looked like a toad. Multiple fairy tales use toads as a standard of human ugliness.  Writer Edgar Allan Poe’s short story character “Hop Frog” was, in the classic film Masque of the Red Death, renamed Hop-Toad. Another film, 1953’s The Maze, has as its central horror a royal Scottish family genetically predisposed to turn into giant toads.

I like to tell kids that, in fact, toads are a lot like us. I tell them that everybody is beautiful in some way, but sometimes you have to search it out. With toads the beauty is often in their eyes. Look closely. Their eyes will have flecks of gold, green and even red offset by the deep, dark luster of their pupils.

I am always surprised by the myths people have as to what differentiates toads from frogs. Firstly, just as tortoises are a subset of turtles, toads are actually a subset of frogs. When you ask people what the difference is, you will get some very commonplace generalizations that have enough exceptions to be useless: land versus water, dry versus wet, slimy versus bumpy, jump versus hop, and on and on. There are really only two factors that separate frogs from toads, and the first one doesn’t help with a visual ID. Frogs tend to lay their eggs in clusters; toads lay their eggs in strings. That helps at the pond, but what about looking at the actual animal?

There is one visible difference—and one difference only. Frogs manufacture protective toxins throughout their skins. Toads produce their toxins in specific bumps on their skin, the largest of which are located directly behind their eyes. These are called parotoid glands. All toads have them, and frogs do not. That is the sole difference.

I mentioned earlier that I always keep some toads in stock, despite their lack of flash and the ease of finding them in most parts of the U.S. Here’s why: Toads are incredibly easy to set up and maintain. They are almost always inexpensive. They are durable. But mostly, they are incredibly charming creatures and often exude a real sense of magic.

Even if you opt not to carry toads as a part of your livestock inventory, you should know their basic setup and maintenance anyway, for customers who will inevitably come in with the toad they found in their backyard and want to keep it as a pet. While toads include a huge variety of species, the care for the vast majority of them generally boils down to very similar basics.

Most of them require a 10-gallon tank, outfitted with potting soil and leaf litter. Keep them moist but not wet; a water bowl is generally recommended but not necessary. Room temperature will suffice in most circumstances. Like any herptile insectivore, their crickets should be supplemented with a good powder vitamin and calcium. Let them teach you how much they want to eat. If you drop in six crickets, and they eat them all, you know they will want more. Clean out and refresh the entire tank from time to time. That’s about it.

As most species produce a mild toxin in their skins, children are advised to wash their hands after handling. As with almost every animal I sell, I recommend no more than 15 to 20 minutes of handling per day.

As I mentioned, most American toad species are remarkably similar, differentiated by comparatively subtle morphological variations. There are a few species that differ enough from the herd to deserve special mention. Three in particular stand out to my mind:

• The Spadefoots (Scaphiophus and Spea sp.): This is a complex of particularly attractive burrowing toads that are often desert species. They lack the scowl that characterizes the face of most true toads. Instead, they have a rather soulful sweetness to them. They can have some vivid coloration as well. They are happier in a mix of soil and sand, and like it fairly dry.

• Green Toads (Bufo debilis): Another desert species, these diminutive toads are unusually green and very attractive. Again, they prefer a sandier tank.

• Cane Toads (Bufo marinus): These are the giant—over six inches—interlopers I discussed at the start of this article; these beasts fear nothing. The toxins in freshly caught specimens are surprisingly strong, and they even have the ability, when really ticked off, to squirt poison out of their parotoid glands in a stream. The are, perhaps, not the best choice for kids—depending on how you feel about the kids.

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

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