Monday, December 29, 2008

A Tale of Two Toads

(Published July 30, 2008 Crossroads Chronicle, Cashiers, NC)

On the July 4th weekend, we saved a toad. Please allow me to explain.

Like so many critters, it had gotten caught by a human made structure. It had hopped into the window well of our basement condo, and it couldn’t get out. In a way, it had fallen; and it couldn’t get up. We all get that way sometimes.

Now, the author is no herpetologist, but the toad looked to be an American Toad. I believe it to be of the genus kisseous americanus. At this point, the reader is probably thinking… “Gross. Who cares about some stupid toad? Besides, it could have been a Fowlers’ toad.

To the first point, toads are important because of the vast quantities of insects they consume. By eating insects that destroy crops, American toads can save farmers, horticulturists and consumers substantial amounts of money. Also, they are part of nature. Besides, the American toad may be distinguished from the closely related Fowler’s toad by the presence of enlarged warts on the lower section of each leg (tibia).

Reluctantly, I picked up the toad.

It was dry to the touch, and had probably been down there some time. It could just barely move its eyes.

We put it in a bowl of water, and it sunk down underwater for some time. I reported to my wife at one point that our patient would probably not make it.

But toads are hardy. The next time we checked, the toad was standing up in the bowl, on watch like some noble creature.

I found a beetle and a cave cricket, and set them next to our toad. When I returned, the bugs were gone, and our toad was enroute towards the woods.

You can probably imagine how I felt. You know; you give someone shoes, and they just walk away. Sometimes, I wonder if some princess isn’t holding him, going, “Maybe, this is the one?

We know, not all stories can have a fairy tale ending. For the Golden Toad (Bufo periglenes), the story is different.

The golden toad was only discovered and named in 1966. It lived in Costa Rica, in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve.

True to its name, the males are a brilliant gold, lighting up the forest floor beneath the canopy above. The females are a mottled black, yellow and scarlet.

For much of the year, its a secretive creature, spending its time underground in burrows among the root masses of the woodland. As dry season gives way to the wet in April and May, it appears above ground en masse, for just a few days or weeks.

The last mating season of the golden toad was chronicled in detail by amphibian expert Marty Crump, a researcher working with the Golden Toad Laboratory for Conservation.

In April of 1987, Crump noted that with the dry weather, the pools containing the eggs had dried completely. The toads tried to breed again in May. Of the 43,500 eggs in the ten pools she studied, only 29 tadpoles survived longer than a week, for the pools again dried quickly.

The following year at Monteverde, Crump found only a single male after a long search. On May 15, of 1989, a solitary male was again sighted. He was almost certainly the same one seen the previous year, sitting only ten feet from the previous sighting. He was, as far as we know, the last of his species, as the golden toad has not been seen since.

The golden toad, along with 122 other amphibians since 1980, has vanished forever. They are today’s canary in the coalmine.

Numerous studies and papers have been written about this disturbing trend, and most come to the same conclusion. The amphibians are dying from a fungal infection, and the disease is likely spreading, or exacerbated by, global climate change.

“Disease is the bullet killing frogs, but climate change is pulling the trigger,” says Alan Pounds, an ecologist at the preserve in Costa Rica.

No bulldozer is responsible for killing these amphibians in their pristine habitat, but rather it is coal-fired power plants in North Carolina, and cars in China, that are responsible. And a bowl of water and a couple of bugs, will not change any of that, so intractable is the problem.

Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers, pp 114-122

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