Toads in the Pond

We have toads in our pond.  Several generations of toads, to be precise.

To clarify why this is a wonderful and exotic thing, let me explain.

Spadefoot Toad on Our Marsh

Spadefoot Toad on Our Marsh

First, where I live is exceptionally dry.  Although the Rio Grande river is not that far away – just a couple  miles’ walk in a straight line east – when judging proximity to water, we might as well be on the Moon.  Okay.  Maybe not the Moon.  But take it from me, it’s dry.

Second, calling the water-feature in my backyard a “pond” is a grand over-glorification.  Our pond is a black plastic shell that holds maybe a hundred and twenty gallons.  And that would be its maximum capacity if we didn’t have anything but water in it and filled it all the way to the brim.

Instead, we have plants in our pond – a dwarf water lily, a blue pickerel weed, and an ornamental plantain that has flowers like baby’s breath.  Between them, the blue pickerel weed and the plantain have created a little marsh firm enough to hold the birds that land to drink.  We have aquatic mint growing around the edges (and into the water, whenever it can).

We have a pump that displaces a couple of gallons.  And a school of goldfish, three generations, all descended from feeder fish we rescued from the pet store.

So there’s not a lot of water there.  But it’s enough water to attract toads.

Our toads are spadefoot toads, specifically, New Mexican spadefoot toads, which are the state amphibian.  Spadefoot toads can live without much water at all.  Using a special digging toe on their hind legs, they burrow underground, emerging when there is water to lay their eggs.  Because usually all they have are puddles, spadefoot tadpoles develop very quickly – often going mobile in as little as forty-eight hours.

I have a friend who makes a point of transferring spadefoot tadpoles from puddles that are drying up to ones that still have water.  I know she has occasionally wondered if this is at all helpful to the toads.  I can now reassure her that a few hours can make a big difference.

Spadefoot toads usually dig backwards, excavating behind them, then backing in and closing the hole after them.  This can lead to startling encounters for those who share their territory.

One year, I noticed that an alyssum I’d planted where it would artfully spill over the edge of a flowerbed had apparently turned triffid and was preparing to go walkabout.  After I gently moved it and prepared to widen the hole and replant it, imagine my astonishment when I looked down and saw a toad looking up at me reproachfully.  It had found a nice, damp piece of real estate, complete with floral ornamentation for the roof.  Now I was messing everything up!

Needless to say, I moved the alyssum to one side, and both toad and plant had a happy summer.

As the years have gone by, we have progressed from the occasional toad sighting, to our current thriving colony.  There’s the toad who lives near our back porch door, waiting to dine on the insects that are attracted by the light spilling out from the kitchen.  There is the toad that lives down at the western edge of the bean netting, doubtlessly enjoying the dampness of the soaker hose we use to water the beans.  There are the toads we see as evening gathers (spadefoot toads are nocturnal) hopping their way from various points in the yard to have a splash in the pond before going hunting.

Last year, we had a transitory turtle spend some time in our yard.  In hopes of encouraging it to stay, we put a shallow dish of water out so it could have something to drink and a splash if it so desired.  We don’t know if it ever used it, but we did see little toads sitting in it, shyly requesting we ignore that they were there so they didn’t have to pretend to be scared and run away.

Most of the year, spadefoot toads are quiet cohabitants.  However, this time of year, they are quite noisy.  Their call is hard to describe.  It’s deeper than you’d expect from such a small creature (most of our toads could sit comfortably in the palm of my hand, many could sit on a quarter).  It’s all on one long, somewhat harsh note, a sort of elongated sound like “cat” without the “C” and with the “T” barely audible.

I’m not sure it’s exactly a “pretty” sound, but Jim and I really like it because it’s a sign that our yard is a vibrant, living organism.  Our cats (who are “indoor only” cats) find it fascinating.  One evening, as a toad was warming up, the toad would go “aaat” and Ogapoge, our big, sixteen pounder, would call back on almost the same note.

We’ve had a relatively damp (for New Mexico), relatively cool (for New Mexico) spring, and the toads are loving it.  So, as you can probably gather, are we.

5 Responses to “Toads in the Pond”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Awwww, cute!

    I watch the spadefoots in the local vernal pools (aka puddles), although I don’t disturb them, because they’re species of special concern, along with a bunch of those other vernal pool species, like the fairy shrimp and a couple of endangered plants.

    Unfortunately, that means I’ve watched tadpoles die as the pools dry up too soon for them to make it, or when they get chased down by the garter snakes, the little dragons of the pools. Someone called our local pools “miniature Serengetis” and given how fast everything has to live just to get through their lives before the water goes away, there’s something to it.

    I should note that vernal pools, aka mud puddles to the uninitiated, are under threat all over the world. Very few people care about them, and there are whole groups of animals (like the fairy shrimp) that are found primarily in these places, especially where they can get away from fish. There are far too many development-minded individuals who think that they’re a waste of time, when a parking lot would make so much more money on the same spot.

    Now, why should you care? The interesting thing about the little puddle dwellers is what they do when the puddles go dry. Our local spadefoots dig into the mud, then aestivate through the summer (that’s like hibernating, except without the cold). They can go two years without eating, if the rains don’t come. The little fairy shrimp lay eggs that hatch when wet. Those eggs, which are little more than a bundle of stem cells in a thin shell, can be run over by a truck, eaten by a duck and crapped out in another pool, or sit in the dust for decades if not centuries, and still come back to life in water, where the fragile little shrimp barely lives a month. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do the same thing with human stem cells? Right now, we need -80oC freezers, special cultures, and talented technicians jut to keep them alive. All the pool creatures have secrets like that, ways of cheating the dry and coming back to life when there’s water. It’s called anhydrobiosis, and we don’t know much about it.

    So if you’re wondering how people could hibernate on interstellar ships, or whether it would be possible to store stem cells on a shelf for a decade until you need them, or whether the toad’s aestivation trick would extend the shelf life of transplantable organs, well… I live in a biotech city that has serious issues with its vernal pools. few in the industry even know they exist, no biotech PhD dude studies them, and some of them even ride their bikes through them and bitch about us environmentalists trying to protect them. If you want to know why I’m so grumpy and negative, it’s because I’m trying to protect my local pools, and this is what I get to deal with on a weekly basis.

    It’s possible that the way to the stars lies through the puddles. Unfortunately, nobody knows and few care. That’s why it’s so cool that someone likes toads.

  2. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Always, every single time, I learn something I hadn’t known from these posts.

  3. Chad Merkley Says:

    Cool! Somehow, I’ve always associated spadefoot toads as being a California thing. It turns out that one species or another (in a couple of different genera) can be found throughout temperate North America. I should, theoretically, be able to find Great Basin Spadefoot Toads here in Eastern Washington. I’ve never heard anyone here locally talk about them, or seen them mentioned in any management documents. Excuse me, I need to go find a herpetologist….

  4. keith Says:

    Thanks for the essay on your toads. Toads have always seemed a bit magical to me – when I was a tadpole, my aunt Karen (20 years gone), would sing “Froggy went a courting” to me. And then at a young age I discovered The Wind In The Willows which is still one of my favourite books.
    Frogs discovered in seams of coal – still alive after supposed millennium, licking frogs to get high, toads ARE magical creatures.

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