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Five Fast Facts About Underappreciated Toads

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

What looks a lot like a frog but doesn't jump like a frog or eat like a frog? A toad.

An American toad on a rocky surface.
An American toad. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Toads and frogs are both amphibians, and species of both are common in and around Illinois. The two toad species found in Illinois are the American toad and the Fowler's toad. The American toad lives all across Illinois. The Fowler's toad lives across most of the state but it is not found in the northern third, including Will County.


American toads can live in a variety of habitats near water, and this can even include your yard. Like most toads, they are nocturnal. They are dark in color, varying from brown to olive green to gray. Their skin is covered in spots and bumps.


Read on to learn more about toads, including the characteristics that separate them from frogs.


Toads are frogs, but not all frogs are toads


Frogs and toads are both amphibians, and they are closely related. They are so closely related that all toads are frogs, but not all frogs are toads. Toads belong to the family Bufonidae, which in taxonomy falls under the order of frogs in the amphibian class. So toads are essentially one family of frogs.

 

Words to know

Arthropod: An invertebrate animal with a segmented body, jointed limbs and shell made of chitin.

Characteristic: A feature or quality belonging to a person or thing.

Distinct: Recognizably different from something.

Secrete: To produce and discharge.

Taxonomy: The system by which organisms are classified.

 

Compared to frogs, which mostly live in and near water, adult toads are most often found on land. Most toads have bumpy, warty skin, while most frogs have smooth skin. Their bumpy skin is thought to be the origin of the notion that touching frogs and toads can give you warts. Don’t worry. That’s just a myth.


One more difference between toads and other frogs is their legs. Frogs are known for their jumping ability and toads are not. Toads have shorter legs than frogs, which limits their leaping ability.


They aren't all small


We usually think of toads as smaller than frogs, especially the big bullfrogs that we see around our waterways. Many toads are smaller than our common frogs. Take the American toad, one of the more common and widespread toad species in North America. They are usually between 2 inches and 4 inches long. Compared that with bullfrogs, which are generally between 4 inches and 8 inches long.


Toads can be both much bigger and much smaller than the American toad, however. Take the oak toad, which lives in the southeastern United States. It reaches a maximum length of about 1.3 inches. On the upper end of the scale, cane toads can grow bigger than a bullfrog, topping out at 9 inches or more. These big toads are native to parts of Texas and Peru and the Amazon rainforest.


Toads also have the ability to make themselves look bigger than they are by puffing themselves up. This can be useful for tricking potential predators into thinking they are too big to swallow.


They are poisonous


Another thing that separates toads from other frogs is that all toads have parotoid glands, which are located behind their eyes. These glands secrete a toxin that makes toads poisonous. These toxins, called bufotoxins, are an effective defense mechanism for toads, because potential predators learn that eating them can be harmful and make them sick. The toxins can be powerful enough to even kill small animals. They can cause allergic reactions in humans as well.

An American toad on pavement.
An American toad. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Zook)

Because they are toxic, toads can be a problem for dogs that tend to try to catch anything they see moving. Luckily, most toad species in the United States are only mildly toxic to our dogs. Two American toad species, the cane toad and Colorado river toad, are more toxic than other species and more dangerous to our dogs, but neither species is native to Illinois.


They catch their food with their tongues


While frogs have teeth, toads do not. So instead of catching their prey with a powerful bite, toads rely on their long, sticky tongues to catch a meal. Once they have captured their prey, they swallow it hole, unable to chew it because they don't have teeth. Their long tongues fold in half when they are being stored in their mouths.


A toad's diet can vary by species, but some will eat just about anything they can fit in their mouths and swallow. Most toads eat a lot of insects and arthropods, but other foods include reptiles, amphibians, small birds and small mammals.


They sing


Frogs are known for their ribbiting call, although that ribbit is not universal among frogs. However, toads don't ribbit. Instead, they sing, and each species has its own distinct calling sound. Like other animals that sing, the main purpose of the melody is to help males attract a mate. They also sing to establish and defend their territory.


Once a male has attracted a female mate, the female releases the eggs and the male fertilizes them. Although toads mostly live on land, they lay their eggs in water like all amphibians do. The eggs hatch into tadpoles with tails and gills and then eventually develop into adult toads and transition to spending most of their time on land.

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