Friday, March 25, 2011


This week saw one of the most memorable events of spring around here - the annual return of toads to their breeding ponds and the ensuing cacophony of croaking and orgy of mating that follows. They arrived in their hundreds, crawling out of the woods and over the wet grass to reach the pond where they grew up as toadpoles.

Some just floated on the pond surface, while....

.... others lurked underwater, but all had just one thing on their mind ...

.... finding something to mate with - and this one was so desperate that it tried to mate with my camera.

Somewhere in this writhing mass of toads there'll be a female.

This cluster slowly rotated in the pond for over an hour .... females are sometimes drowned by the lust-crazed males.

At one point this ball of toads had around eighteen individuals clambering over one another. This must surely be one of the most remarkable displays of blind instinct in British natural history. I saw a group of four toads trying to mate with a reed mace seed head that was floating in the water.

Many years ago, mooching around in a second-hand bookshop, I found a copy of Thomas Bell’s A History of Reptiles, published in 1849 when toads were still classified as reptiles. It provides some fascinating early insights into the life of these amphibians. Part of Bell’s purpose was to “shrew that it is.... highly useful, perfectly harmless, inoffensive, and even timid, and susceptible to no inconsiderable degree of discriminating attachment to those who treat it with kindness”, counteracting what he refers to as “undeserved persecution as the victims of an absurd and ignorant prejudice.... Condemned by common consent as a disgusting, odious, and venomous reptile, the proverbial emblem of all that is malicious and hateful in the human character....”.

This is one of the book's wood engravings. Bell provides a delightful description of a toad feeding: “The Toad, when about to feed, remains motionless, with its eyes turned directly forward upon the object, and the head a little inclined towards it, and in this attitude it remains until the insect moves; when, by a stroke like lightning, the tongue is thrown forward upon the victim, which is instantly drawn into the mouth.”

There are numerous old accounts of toads being found alive embedded in the wood of trees or even inside rocks (like the account you can read here), no doubt poorly observed instances of these animals hibernating under rotten logs and under rocks, and Bell describes some cruel experiments that were performed by early naturalists to prove that entombed toads could survive, including artificially embedding them in balls of hard clay or plaster of Paris ...... all of which inevitably led to the death of the toad.

Bell clearly liked toads and provides an account of how toads are easy to tame, citing his own pet toad that would "sit on one of my hands, and eat from the other..."

He also dispelled the myth that they are poisonous to humans - a long-standing misconception which you sometimes still hear repeated today. At one time it was believed that their bite, their breath and even a glance from those fiery orange eyes could strike you dead. Bell described how there are glands on their back that secrete an acrid liquid that deters predators, but that’s the limit of their toxicity. Bell went on to record how a Dr. John Davy investigated this secretion: “....... a thick yellowish fluid, which on evaporation yields a transparent residue, very acrid, and acting on the tongue like extract of aconite. It is neither acid nore alkaline; and since a chicken inoculated with it received no injury, it does not appear to be noxious when absorbed and carried in the circulation.”
You can see the glands in question - called paratoid glands in the photo above, showing up as the orange-hued ridges behind the eye.

Footnote: Thomas Bell, more than just a footnote in history.

Thomas Bell, a dentist by profession and author of A History of British Reptiles, was a remarkable individual. His personal researches into natural history were so admired that he became Profesor of Zoology at King's College London and he identified the reptile and crustacean species that Darwin brought back from his voyage on HMS Beagle, affirming that the giant tortoises were native to the Galapagos Islands and had not been taken there by pirates - a finding that was later to prove important in Darwin's interpretation of the way in which these reptiles had speciated on the islands. You can read more about him here.
Photo source:

Footnote: Batrachomyomachia

As with so many natural history books of the period, Bell’s account of the amphibians concludes with a charming tailpiece wood engraving, in this case of a battle between mice and frogs (double-click for a larger image).
It depicts the scene in a Greek poem sometimes said to have been written by Homer (unlikely, apparently) and probably dating from the fifth century BC, called Batrachomyomachia. In the story (there are numerous variations) a frog offers a mouse a ride on its back around its watery habitat but is frightened by a snake, dives underwater and the mouse is drowned. The tragedy is seen by a fellow mouse and a war, that lasts just one day, is fought between the mice and frogs. The goddess Athena calls on Zeus to quell the fighting using thunderbolts (i.e. an air-strike) but that fails and instead she sends an army of crabs (i.e. sends in the heavy armour) to quell the disturbance. You can read a translation of the poem here.


  1. Nice to hear of Bell defending the toad! the underwater/water-level pics are great.

    with regards to attempting to mate with the reedmace There’s a somewhat murky video here (you can also hear their delightful chirping croak!):

    Perhaps attraction of other males sparks further attraction? such as one male which investigated the mating ball and decided against joining, then changed his mind after another male turned up.

    It's interesting how quickly they recognise when they've pounced on another male which is not part of a mating ball, considering their willingness to clamber on other males in a mating ball and what they mistake for females...

  2. Wow - a fascinating post! I especially like the last bit. Gotta love old books!

  3. Thanks again a wonderful sight. I learn yet again.

  4. A brilliant post and wow the under water shots.
    I've never had any toads spawning in my garden pond, there are toads in and around our garden but it's very popular with the frogs there were around 100 frogs when spawning was at it's height.

  5. Toads seem to be far more common than Frogs... is this realy the case...?

  6. the reflection in the second photo down gives a weird impression of the toad having a third eye on its foot. Lovely photos Phil. So far I've only had frogs

  7. Hi Alice, thanks for the YouTube link - I look a couple of photos of the toads trying to mate with the reedmace but they were threshing about so much that they were too blurred to post.

  8. Hi Ellen, I'm a bit of an old-natural-history-book addict; they often contain some real nuggets of interesting information and first-hand observations.

  9. Hi Adrian, I think toads have always suffered from bad PR - the Wind in the Willows didn't do toad-kind any favours!

  10. Hi David, These were at a large pond on the edge of Durham city. I've tried to introduce toads (as rescued toadlets) into my garden and pond, but no luck yet, as far as I can tell. I've got buckets of frogs and also smooth newts, but maybe I'm being a bit ambitious to expect toads as well - the pond is crowded enogh as it is!

  11. Hi Stevie, Don't really know - but when toads are spawning there are so many in a pond that it gives the impression that they must be commonest....

  12. I see what you mean Pauline - spooky of what?