Invite a Toad to Dinner

(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District)

Why would anyone want to do such a thing? They're creepy crawly little critters! And have you seen them eat? Such atrocious table manners!

Toads may not be the best guests to have around the dinner table, but they are great to have in your yard. The American toad (Bufo americanus) is the most common toad found in Northern Virginia, and possesses a voracious appetite. One of nature's most efficient bug-eaters, the American toad's diet consists of a variety of insects including ants, beetles, crickets, centipedes, flies, and mosquitoes. Slugs and worms are also a preferred delicacy.

American toadsUnlike frogs, toads have rough leathery skin covered by numerous bumps. These are often referred to as warts. Contrary to what you may have heard on the playground as a kid, people cannot get warts from handling a toad. Toads vary in color. They can be black, brown, tan, green, gray, or an orange-red, and are often a combination of these colors. Toads can also change their color or shade to match their surroundings, though this ability is limited. You will never see a pink toad!

Toads are natural introverts. They spend most of the day hiding amongst leaf litter, under plants such as ferns, Virginia creeper, honeysuckle and hostas, or under ground if the temperature is too hot or too cold. Toads are active at night, coming out of their hiding places in search of food. In spring, male toads can be heard “calling” to attract females. The American toad’s call is a gentle, pleasant sounding trill that lasts between 10 and 30 seconds.

So how can you attract toads to your yard?

Like all creatures, toads have four fundamental needs: food, water, shelter, and a place to raise young. Food for toads means insects. Insects are attracted to plants and plant debris. If you include a variety of trees, shrubs, flowers, and groundcover plants in your yard, you will attract a variety of insects and provide a source of shelter for your toad guests. Adding an ornamental pond to your yard provides a source of water and a place for young to develop. Toads begin life in water and “morph” into land dwellers. Having a pond, however, is not essential. Unlike frogs, toads are mainly terrestrial, and don’t need to be close to or in water all the time. For instance, even if a neighbor a few doors down has a pond, toads may still spend most of their time in your yard if food and shelter conditions are more favorable.

Please don’t poison your guests!

Homeowners in the United States use up to ten times more pesticides per acre on lawns than farmers use on crops! Chemical pesticides are known to be lethal or cause deformities in amphibian young (tadpoles), and can be lethal to adult amphibians as well. If you want to have toads, don’t use pesticides. The toads that inhabit your yard will do their best to naturally rid you of your garden pests.

Toads are natural insecticides and an indicator of a healthy environment. Invite a toad to dinner today!

Vernal Pools, an Overlooked Natural Resource

Vernal pools are a vital natural resource. They offer many important benefits including serving as a breeding site for several amphibian species as well as a habitat for rare and endangered plant species. Vernal pools also filter the rainwater that ultimately drains into our water supply. Unfortunately, they are frequently overlooked.

vernal poolVernal pools by definition are small, isolated wetlands that retain water on a seasonal basis. Sometimes referred to as “spring pools,” vernal pools fill up with melting snow and early rains during spring, then usually dry up by mid to late summer depending on the pool depth, permeability of the soil, and amount of rainfall. Some relatively deep pools may remain flooded for a few years but become completely dry in seasons with very low rainfall. Found on every continent except Antarctica, vernal pools come in sizes ranging from several square feet to several acres. The sites where they occur also vary greatly and include isolated depressions in the woods, kettle holes, and gravel pits.

Nearly 50 percent of the amphibians in the U.S. breed primarily in vernal pools because the pools are temporary and cannot support fish, the major predator to amphibian larvae.2 Some species like the wood frog and the spotted salamander are obligate species meaning they will not breed in any body of water other than a vernal pool.

Vernal pools also support several species of insects including predacious diving beetles and crawling water beetles. These insects, along with dragonfly nymphs and the larvae of several salamander species, are voracious predators of mosquito larvae referred to as “wigglers.” Certain species of adult frogs, toads and salamanders feed on adult mosquitoes as well. The many predators that reside at vernal pools make them a hostile environment for mosquitoes as compared to the many man-made mosquito breeding sites such as bird baths, clogged gutters, and swimming pools that are not properly winterized.

We need to recognize and preserve vernal pools for the vital and dynamic natural resources that they are. For more information, try these Internet links:

Environmental Protection Agency

The Vernal Pool Association

Vernal pools are small, isolated wetlands that retain water on a temporary or seasonal basis. Many amphibian species in the U.S. breed primarily in vernal pools because the pools are temporary and cannot support fish, the major predator to amphibian larvae. Some species, such as the wood frog and the spotted salamander, are obligate species, meaning they will not breed in any body of water other than a vernal pool.

Save the Forest!

Vernal pool breeders reside at the pool only during their brief breeding season. The rest of the year, they live in the upland forest surrounding the pool. Getting to their “birth pool” can be a dangerous endeavor for vernal pool breeders if the upland forest around the pool has been partially cleared.

For example, where large areas of forest around pools have been cleared to create pastureland, there is a hazardous barrier between the animals’ home and breeding site. The animals are forced to trek across open land making them vulnerable to predators and to being trampled by horses or cattle. Therefore, having a generous amount of contiguous forest around the breeding site is very important.

Follow That Scent

Spotted, mole, and other salamander species have an internal “homing device” that leads them to the same breeding pool each year. Here’s how it works. Salamander eggs are contained in a jelly-like mass that the larvae will use for sustenance after they hatch. Several days after being laid, algae will grow on the “jelly.” As the larvae hatch and feed on the algae-covered jelly, the unique properties of the algae become genetically imprinted on the larvae’s brain. The larvae that survive and “morph” into junior adults will venture into the upland forest with the “memory” of their birth pool’s algae scent. Once reaching sexual maturity, the animals are drawn to their “birth pool” each breeding season by the smell of the algae.

Vernal pools provide many amphibians a place to breed. Unfortunately, like other wetlands they are disappearing at an alarming rate. We need to preserve these dynamic natural resources so that future generations can discover the fascinating life that they support.

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