Thursday, October 29, 2009

Toad and lizard come to call

 All text and photos by Sally Kneidel, PhD, of

I had fun this week. To my joy, I was twice asked to retrieve or rescue a little animal in a bad situation. One was an Anolis lizard on my neighbors' living-room curtain. It took me just a few seconds to nudge her into a little carrying cage. The second was a Fowler's toad trapped in the bottom of a stairwell at the school where I work. The disgruntled toad had dozens of loud students stomping over its hiding place, and long human hairs tangled around its legs.

I took both of them home, just long enough to offer them food and rest. Back in the days when I wrote Creepy Crawlies and the Scientific Method, and Pet Bugs, and Classroom Critters and so on, I was catching ordinary little animals and bugs almost daily and keeping them just long enough to share with my science classes and write about them for my books. Then let I let them go where I found them, usually with fuller bellies. But I haven't done it much lately. Living on a suburban lot close to downtown, we don't see that many toads, frogs, lizards, snakes, or turtles around my house. I wish we did, I miss them.  The ones we do see are usually squashed on the road. I've gotten pretty good at identifying completely flattened road kill. I know that Brown Snakes (Storeria dekayi) must spend a lot of time sunning themselves in the road, because 95% of the squashed snakes I see are Brown Snakes.

The lizard
The lizard I retrieved from my neighbor's curtain this week was Anolis carolinensis or a Carolina anole. A lot of people call them "chameleons" because they change colors, from green to dark brown. But it's not for  camouflage, like in some African chameleons (below).

The color change in anoles is an indication of their emotional state or their body temperature.When they're calm and relaxed, or warm, they tend to be green. When they're upset about an intruder, or if they're cold, they tend to be dark brown (like the pic below). My anole was not happy in the sleeve cage where I put her, despite the fact that I set it up like a natural habitat with sticks to climb on and leaves, and sprayed it with a mister to provide droplets to drink. (There she is in the sleeve cage, below. I knew it was a female because males have pink skin on the throat for displays.)

Below, you can see the whole sleeve cage, which allows you to move things in and out of the cage without taking the top off.  Especially useful if you have flying insects.

I did a bunch of sweeps through the brush out back with my sweep net (below) to provide a variety of insect prey for the carnivorous little Anolis lizard.

 Ken holds the sweep net (above) so I can show you the size of it. He insisted I not show his face.

In spite of my efforts to provide comfort and a tasty diet, I did not once see the anole eat. I gave her living crickets, leaf hoppers, little spiders, a stilt bug, a beetle - a wide selection of active prey. I put them all in the sleeve cage.

I took her out just once, to have a close look and see what she'd do.  Anoles can get quite friendly, if you keep them for a long time. But I don't encourage anyone to keep wild animals as pets, including myself.  So I let her crawl around on my arm just once for a few minutes, to enjoy watching her, then I took her out to the brush pile between our yard and the field and let her go. I did it reluctantly, but knowing I had to.

The toad
Then I had only the Fowler's toad left.  I had set him up in a big cardboard box.

A jar lid provided water for the toad (below). A thin plastic food container cut in half lengthwise made a little house, which he preferred to the wide open spaces of the box.  I also kept two damp and slightly crumpled paper towels in the box so the toad could go under them if his skin got too dry.  I know from experience that toads will sit in a jar lid of water and take the water into their cloaca if they need moisture. The cloaca is sort of like a bladder and a colon in reptiles, amphibians, and birds, except that it's also the end of the reproductive tract. Three functions in one. I've never seen a toad lap up water into its mouth, I don't think they do that.

I knew this toad was a Fowler's toad (Bufo fowleri) because those are the most common toads in our area (the piedmont of N.C.)  and because it had a single dark spot on its chest. It didn't have the prominent cranial crests of a Southern toad (Bufo terrestris) nor the 1 to 2 warts per spot of the American toad (Bufo americanus). Most of its spots had 2 or 3 warts, the number typical of Fowler's.

I gave that toad so much to eat. Toads are predators too, so I gave him four fat earthworms from our compost - I know toads eat worms, because I used to have toads that would snatch worms draped across my finger.  I know they love crickets, I've fed crickets to dozens of toads in science classes. Yet for two days this one would not eat the fat mature crickets I put in its sleeve cage, or the earthworms. I could only conclude that both the lizard and the toad were looking for somewhere to hole up for the winter and were no longer interested in eating. Or else it just takes a while for them to get accustomed to captivity before they will begin to eat. Maybe I've forgotten how long that period is.

Anyway, it's the end of October, time for the toad to burrow down for the winter.  So, today, I took the toad to release it.  I put him in the sleeve cage and walked down into the woods at the school where I work. I followed the creek until I came to place where a lot of dead wood was on the ground near the creek - an acceptable place for a toad to burrow down for the winter. I know they sometimes spend all winter hunkered under logs, because I've found them in such places in the dead of winter. 

I put the toad on a rotted log and away he went. I let the crickets go too. And, happily, when I shook out the damp paper towels in the cage, I noticed that all the worms but one were gone!  He did eat them!  Yay!

Conservation status
Like most wildlife, Fowler's toads are threatened by loss of habitat. Protection of breeding sites for Bufo fowleri is essential to their survival. Most toads breed in shallow waters such as woodland ponds, farm ponds, lake edges, and marshes. The soft permeable skin of toads and other amphibians makes them especially vulnerable to agricultural chemicals, which tend to drain into their breeding ponds. Such wetland areas are also filled-in for housing developments, agriculture, or roads. In the Charlotte multi-county where I live, 41 acres per day are being developed!  Even now, you have to get out in the country really to find toads these days.

Although all natural habitats are diminishing as our population increases, anoles are not as vulnerable as toads and other amphibians. They lay their eggs in moist soil or rotting wood, so they're not exposed to agricultural runoff in shallow pools. However, they do pick up pesticides in the bodies of their insect prey.  Anoles are also impacted by the pet trade. When I was kid, you could buy an anole in a small box at the circus, with no care instructions whatsoever. They are still sold in pet stores everywhere in the Southeast. Housecats are also a menace to all small animals.More than a billion small animals and birds are killed by housecats in the United States every year. I know frogs are among their victims, because I found my neighbor's cat chewing on two of the bullfrogs in my backyard pond (that particular cat is gone now).  But in spite of all that, anoles are still fairly common in the southeastern United States, outside of cities.

Anyway I'm grateful that lizard and toad dropped in for a couple of days. I'm glad they're gone too - finding live insects to feed them every day is a chore.  And they deserve to be free.  I'm glad I was able to let them go in good habitats.  It was the highlight of my week, by a long shot.

Key words:: wildlife Fowlers toads Bufo fowleri Anolis carolinensis lizards anoles animals in captivity Creepy Crawlies Pet Bugs Classroom Critters


jennifer said...

i think i have a Fowler's Toad to i was on my way to work and stopped him from being run over by a car the nearest pond is by a busy road 4blocks away it getting cold almost winter so i took him home my son loved him hes eating good. do you have any advice i want to keep him healthy till i can find a good place for him

Sally Kneidel, PhD said...

It was nice of you to rescue the toad. I'm glad you're looking for a good place to let it go. If you have to keep it for a couple of days, put a jar lid of water in the space with the toad. The toad will absorb water by sitting in the jar lid and either soaking up water through its skin or taking the water into its cloaca (opening). Toads will eat live earthworms, but they have to be moving to get the toads' attention. Not sure what else you could find to feed it this time of year; toads are strictly predators. A pet store might have some crickets - they'll eat live crickets. But I do recommend releasing the toad, near some place where it can burrow under a rotting log for the winter. Thanks for writing!