Amphibious Assault

by Richard LeBlond

It has been raining hard for several hours – not your typical summer drizzle, but a 40-day, 40-night special. Tonight there will be no reading of newspapers, no fidgeting with the bills, no dining in a cozy Cape Cod restaurant. Instead, I will drive the amphibious assault craft, for this is the night that has called forth the toad and the toader.

I was conscripted for the work by a good friend who is studying the eastern spadefoot toad, a creature about whom very little is known. Our ignorance of the spadefoot is not due to a lack of interest, but to the peculiar life style of this biological relic. It is more closely related to ancient lost tribes of amphibians than it is to any living family of frogs and toads. The spadefoot apparently spends the great majority of its life below ground, emerging only on wet nights, probably to feed, and on the wettest to breed.

The spadefoot is equipped with a hard and pointed tubercle on each of its hind feet, which is its “spade” for burrowing into dry soil. A descending spadefoot takes with it a lungful of air, burrowing to a depth as great as three feet, and remains there until called out by a summer downpour. It is thought this self-entombment can last as long as several years. On one breath.

The toader and I have been out before. There has been a full cup of rainy days this summer. We saw spadefoots up and down the Outer Cape, scattered and solitary, but out and about. The problem with these earlier forays was the lack of a breeding rain.

The spadefoot only breeds in temporary pools and puddles, because they are fish-free. The pool or puddle has to be deep enough to allow time for the transformation from egg to tadpole to toad before the nursery evaporates. Although many breeding attempts end in dehydrated failure, the spadefoot has the miraculous ability to make the transit from egg to toad in two weeks, clambering out onto land with its tail still evident, ready for a life of mostly sleep.

Driving the amphibious assault craft is not an easy task, because it is on the road itself where the toads are first found. The driver is always in danger of squashing the project, and of presenting a hazard to other drivers on dark and rainy nights. The toader and I agreed from the start that the main highway, Route 6, was off-limits to the study. Only on the side roads can this modern assay of ancient urge be effectively and safely employed.

The Outer Cape is so small and the road system so extensive that crossing asphalt barrens has become part of the journey for the toad venturing from upland woods to bottomland puddle. For some reason, both the common Fowler’s toad and the rare spadefoot halt on the asphalt. Maybe they sit soaking up the surface rainwater, or are disoriented by the flatness and hardness of the roadbed in what is otherwise a journey of humic descent. Maybe they sense something alien, or are stymied by a silence in the genetic code. Whatever, there they sit on the road, looking like small stones, or too often, like medium-size pancakes.

“Toad!” shouts the toader, and I bring the craft to a stop. It is a spadefoot. Down go the windows, in spite of the rain, and we listen. But the road toad is not the quarry. It is the indicator. We are listening for the breeding pool.

The spadefoot has the strangest mating call of all our toads and frogs, but we rarely get to hear it. This call has been described variously as “the coarse low-pitched complaint of a young crow” and “a deafening, agonizing roar, hoarse and woeful.” The toader and I had listened to recordings of this call, and were prepared.

We had been prepared all spring and summer. After hundreds of miles of stopping for toads and toad-like rocks, sticks, and oak leaves, we wondered whether we would ever hear the call in the wild. So far, all we had gotten for rolling down the windows at each spadefoot sighting were rain-splattered laps. But this night of heavy rain – possibly the best spadefoot breeding rain since the launching of Noah’s Ark – had potential, and did not let us down.

The voices of what turned out to be three lovesick spadefoot males made their way up an embankment through the sheeting sound of the rain. (For what it’s worth, I’ll add my own description of the spadefoot mating call: it sounds like a sick duck.) We worked our way down the embankment and found the toads clinging to rushes in a pool maybe six inches deep. With a flashlight we were able to watch this lonesome trio, the vocal sac expanding to three times the size of the head before each croak. The sudden release of air caused their little bodies to bob up and down on the submerged rushes.

We returned three days later to see if the male spadefoots had found romance. But instead of finding eggs or tadpoles, we found a waterless mudhole. Somewhere up the hill, the toads had snuggled themselves once again into the Cape’s soft earth, to endure what likely may be another fruitless summer. There they will wait out the seasons and the years as they have done since parting with the ancients. They spend so little time on the earth and so much time in it, the greatest threat to spadefoots is not a dried-up pool or the asphalt barrens, but the unearthing of their foundations for our own.

Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. He has been writing about life experiences, travel to Europe and North Africa in the 1970s, and more recent adventures in eastern Canada and the U.S. West. His essays and photographs have appeared in several U.S. and international journals.