A Leap Into Spring

By Brigette Brown

Anyone can be a naturalist. Below, Academy herpetologist Ned Gilmore explains how to spot a common springtime friend, the American toad.

A native inhabitant of the Northeast and Midwest regions of North America, the American toad is a peaceful and versatile resident of forests, fields, and backyards. Ranging from about 2 to 4 inches in length, this small amphibian can be any shade of olive green, brown, or gray. This species has tiny black warts located along its back and on the top of its head. Contrary to popular myth, these warts are not transferable to humans.

American Toad

American Toad by Ned Gilmore/ANS

Another noticeable characteristic of the American toad is its two large glands, which look like oval-shaped bumps, on each side of its head. These glands are used to secrete a liquid that tastes awful to predators and protects the toad from snakes, birds, and many small mammals. Look for a black throat—this is a distinguishing feature of the male. Also keep an ear open for the pleasant trilling sound of the male’s mating call.

The American toad hibernates until late March, burrowed in a little hole under the ground all winter to conserve moisture. The best time to spot one, suggests Gilmore, is right after the first steady, warm rain in April. He explains that during the early spring season, the toad utilizes any nearby water source, stream, or temporary pond for breeding. The American toad is nocturnal, so it is most active during the night.

After the breeding period, the American toad becomes fairly terrestrial as it moves into the surrounding woodlands and fields. Here among the plants, the toad spends the rest of the warm season looking for shelter and food. The American toad’s expansive diet consists of invertebrates, such as worms, beetles, snails, and mosquitoes. Some invertebrates in the toad’s diet may be considered destructive to garden plants. Having toads in your garden is a cooperative and earth-friendly way to keep your plants healthy!

Gilmore recommends building a rock pile near a shady bush or protective plant to make your own garden toad-friendly. With a helping hand, collect and place medium to large rocks into a pile that creates a space for a toad to find shelter underneath. You can also use a ceramic terra-cotta pot. Place the empty pot on its side a few inches into the soil.

Make sure the toad shelter is sturdy, in the shade, and out of the way of any human activity. Then sit quietly near your garden to watch for the toad. If you don’t see the American toad at home, be sure to look for this bumpy but beneficial amphibian at your local parks and trails this spring.

Other animals can be fun to watch in spring. Check out the eastern bluebird and spring peeper!

The Academy’s Frogs: A Chorus of Colors exhibit is now open! From radiant blue to fiery red, living frogs around the world offer a glimpse of the vast palette of frog diversity. Frogs are found on nearly every environment on Earth, and they have strange, shocking, and interesting survival strategies. Check out live frogs of many hues, listen to their colorful chorus, and admire the many ways they swim, hop, glide, and soar. Hop into a frog’s world as you inspect frog habitats complete with rock ledges, live plants and waterfalls. See live frogs in action, search for hidden frogs, create a nighttime frog chorus, spin a zoetrope to see how a frog jumps, and conduct a virtual frog dissection.

Buy Frogs: A Chorus of Colors Tickets

This article originally appeared in the spring 2013 issue of Academy Frontiers.