Provincetown Life Information

Eastern Spadefoot toads found at Cape Cod National Seashore

Published: Thu April 20, 2006
By: Straight Dope in Life > Beach & Ocean
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By ERIC WILLIAMS | Cape Cod Times

It was a dark and stormy night, perfect for toad love. As a warm rain fell in the Province Lands, scores of eastern spadefoot toads emerged from their holes and hurried toward little pocket ponds, spurred by the ageless need to, well, hop to it.

But as the lovestruck amphibians skedaddled across Province Lands Road, a giant SUV roared down upon them like the Grim Reaper - thunder and flattened toads and red taillights.

That nightmare is enough to make a biologist sit bolt upright in bed and yell, ‘’Nevermore!’’

And so moved by real-life toad carnage, Cape Cod National Seashore officials announced last week that on rainy nights from now until August, temporary traffic detours may occur in the Province Lands to let the spadefoot toads get to where the getting is good - the shallow, temporary ponds where they breed.

Carrie Phillips, the Seashore’s acting chief of natural resources, said patrol rangers and biologists will act like crossing guards of love on the occasional nights when substantial rain and a temperature above 50 degrees act like a Barry White record and so motivate the spadefoots.

An impressively lyrical passage from the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection sets the scene: ‘’On damp summer nights, spadefoots often emerge from their burrows. When rainfall is extensive, their call, a short explosive ‘wank,’ like the call of a crow, may be heard.’’

That ‘’wank’’ has ofttimes been followed by an unfortunate ‘’splat’’ in the Province Lands, where many eastern spadefoot toads have been squashed as they cross roads to get busy.

Eastern spadefoot toads are plentiful at the National Seashore, and wildlife managers want to keep it that way.

And while there is a stable population of spadefoot toads in the Province Lands area, officials are worried that, over the long term, heavy mortality from vehicles could cause this population to decline.

While the Seashore is known for glamorous pin-up animals that fill calendars and postcards, like those showy shorebirds and hot-air whales, the spadefoot toad population of the Province Lands may be the least appreciated natural wonder in the whole park.

‘’Amphibians are where it’s at,’’ said Robert Cook, Cape Cod National Seashore wildlife ecologist. ‘’We think we are the epicenter of spadefoot toads in the Northeast here. We’re the flagship franchise.’’

The toad is listed as threatened in Massachusetts, endangered in Connecticut and Ohio and rare in West Virginia.

But the Province Lands has the spadefoot in spades, because the countless ‘’dune slacks,’’ those little hollows at the bottom of parabolic dunes, fill up nicely during spring and summer rains, providing perfect places for hoppy hubba-hubba.

‘’Their reproductive strategy takes advantage of heavy rainfall that creates short-duration puddles or little ponds,’’ said Cook. ‘’They come out from underground and mate hurriedly and have very rapidly developing eggs and rapidly developing larvae.’’

Cook said the detour program has been in effect since the 2004 season, shortly after park biologists realized that there was a significant spadefoot population in the Province Lands.

The exact number of toads is not known, but recent years have produced hundreds of sightings, exciting stuff considering the paucity of spadefoot
sightings in nearby states. According to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, only 16 sightings of spadefoots were reported from 1811 to 1936 in Southern New England.

Park officials believe detours will be infrequent, only at night, and when they occur, visitor access to Herring Cove and the Race Point area will be preserved. Cook said there have been only a handful of detours in the last few years, but on those magic nights the toads were everywhere.

-- Eastern spadefoot toad information --

Habitat: Found in arid to semi-arid areas, such as fields, farmland, dunes and woodlands with sandy or loose soils. Breed in temporary bodies of water (e.g., vernal pools), flooded fields and forested wetlands

Range: The eastern spadefoot toad occurs from southern New England to south Florida, west to southeastern Missouri, northeastern Arkansas and eastern Louisiana.

Food: Flies, crickets, caterpillars, moths, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, earthworms and snails. Tadpoles initially feed on plankton (microscopic plants) for a few days. The tadpoles then become carnivorous and sometimes even cannibalistic.

Length: 1.75-3.25 inches.

Life Expectancy: At least 5 years.

Attention toad wranglers: When handling spadefoot toads, many people experience strong allergic reactions to secretions from the toads’ skin glands. Reactions may include violent sneezing, a runny nose and watery eyes. To prevent an allergic reaction, anyone who handles a spadefoot toad should wash his hands thoroughly with soap and water, keeping them away from his face and eyes until they do so.

Source: Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection

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