Phylum: Chordata - Class: Amphibia - Order: Anura - Family: Bufonidae
These drowsy-looking amphibians are often seen in shady waterside places during the mating season in April and May. For the rest of the year they tend to move away from the waterside and are far more comfortable in dry surroundings than frogs are.
The most distinctive feature of the Common Toad is its grey-brown to olive-brown skin, which is dry (not at all slimy) and covered in wart-like lumps and dark blotches. The head is broad with a wide toothless mouth above which is a blunt snout with two small nostrils. Set high in the head are two protruding eyes with yellowish irises and pupils in the form of narrow horizontal slits. Swellings behind the eyes contain bufotoxin, a noxious substances that acts as a deterrent to potential predators - although there are a few birds that are immune to this toxin, so toads cannot drop their guards completely. The squat, ground-hugging body and the head are joined without a distinct neck; and the underside of the body .
Toads have four legs and no tail. The forelegs are shorter than the hindlegs, and unlike frogs the Common Toad has unwebbed back feet.
Adult male toads grow to a length of 8cm, whereas a large female can be up to 13cm long. A large female toad can weigh as much as 80gm.
The Common Toad, also referred to as the European Toad, does indeed occur throughout mainland Europe as well as many islands including Britain (but not, it seems, Ireland); however, its range extends also into western parts of northern Asia and part of coastal North Africa.
Toads are not fussy feeders, and they will eat almost any small creature that they can catch. Toadlets feed on ants and other tiny insects. Adult toads can manage larger meals, and their diet includes insects, spiders, slugs and worms. Being slow moving, toads generally hunt at night and rely on stealth to get close enough to their prey. A toad's tongue is sticky, and once 'flicked and licked' the hapless victim has little chance of escaping.
Common toads secrete the foul-tasting irritant chemical bufagin from their warty skin, and this toxin deters most predators from eating them. They are also able to puff themselves up, and smaller potential predators then see them as either something fearsome or at least too much of a mouthful. Size is no deterrent to larger predatory animals, of course, and some of these are immune to the effects of bufagin. Grass snakes and hedgehogs in particular are able to cope with these chemicals, and they will eat toads when they get the chance.
The paired Common Toads shown here were photographed while they were on their way to a pond in the springtime. The smaller, darker toad is the male.
Female toads instinctively try to return to the lake or pond in which they were born. Their tadpoles are very similar to those of frogs but they have rounder, darker heads and shorter tails. The tadpoles become toadlets over a period of about four months, losing the tail as they develop first their forelegs and then their hindlegs.
Toadlets emerge from the water after heavy rain in late summer rather, much later in the year than froglets do.
Unlike frogs, whose spawn appears in large masses, toads leave long ribbons of spawn in shallow water.
The ribbon-like spawn of a toad is easily distinguished from the 'tapioca pudding' form of frog spawn; however, it's not so easy to tell whether a ribbon came from a Common Toad or its slightly smaller relative the Natterjack Toad. If you look closely you will see that a Common Toad lays spawn in a double row, whereas the Natterjack's spawn is a single file ribbon.
By far the easiest way to tell Natterjack spawn from Common Toad spawn is to wait and see what kind of toadlets develop. (Natterjack Toads are most unlikely to appear in your garden pond unless you live right beside the sea.)
If like us you live a mile or more inland, any toad spawn in your garden pond is almost certainly destined in due course to produce Common Toads.
Toads are slow-moving creatures and potentially long-lived (up to 40 years, and occasionally longer in captivity, outliving their keepers in many instances). Their wrinkled, warty skin is no indication of age, however, and even a one-year-old toad has the appearance of a miniature 'senior citizen' and behaves like one. Whereas frogs can hop away quickly when danger threatens, the tired-looking Common Toad merely ambles along as though wearing lead boots.
In between forays for food, Common Toads return to their hideaways, usually shallow excavated burrows but sometimes natural 'caves' beneath fallen timber. When on their annual migration to spawning ponds, lots of toads (as well as frogs and newts) get squashed while crossing roads and lanes. 'Toad Crossing' signs are erected on some roads that cross major amphibian migration routes, and they do alert caring motorists (but sadly not the amphibians) to the risks.
Why don't we see toads more often?
Although the Common Toad is thought to be in decline in Britain and many other countries, there are still plenty of them about. Unlike frogs, they tend to go unnoticed, and there are some good reasons for this:
Finally, if you live in Ireland, Iceland or on one of the Mediterranean islands, it's not worth looking for a Common Toad because they do not occur in these countries; elsewhere in Europe, including Britain, this is one of the amphibians that you are most likely to come across almost anywhere in the countryside or even in your own garden. (We see plenty of toads in our own garden in west Wales, although apart from during the mating season they rarely approach our pond and are mainly found beneath groung-covering shrubs and in shaded hedgerows.)
Matching the Hatch by Pat O'Reilly (2017) - learn all about aquatic insects and other small water creatures that feature in the diet of toads.
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