Toads in Love

The nights are so quiet in the dry season.  I don’t realize how much I miss the honk of frogs and toads until they crank up again after the first rain.  After resting for so many months through the heat it must be wonderful to feel mud and wet grass between those splayed toes.

I remember a few years ago coming home one day to find a large plastic supermarket bag hanging on the pantry doorknob, pulsing slightly and emitting strange noises.  Upon examination it proved to contain about two kilograms of copulating toads.  I went looking for Wayan hoping for an explanation and found her in the laundry.

“Wayan, there is a bag of toads in the kitchen,” I announced.

“Yes, Ibu,” she agreed, hanging up the towels to dry.

Apparently the topic did not merit discussion. I went back to have another look. They were still at it, hunched in unlovely pairs on top of one another and glaring at me from indignant little black eyes.

It transpired that a friend of mine with a large garden had found the nocturnal cacophony disturbing.  She’d asked her gardener to collect all the toads he could find and prepare them for transmigration. Wayan’s husband Nyoman happened to come along just then on an errand and was entrusted with the cargo of amphibians. He was instructed to release them in some convenient waterway, but he had brought them home instead. “They eat a lot of mosquitoes,” he pointed out.

I enjoy toad noises in the night and we have plenty of mosquitoes to share, so we distributed them around the garden and ponds.  But the toads immediately disappeared and the nights were even more quiet than usual. Apart from discovering one grumpy newcomer inside a shoe and another in the shower, they all seem to have vanished. I called Don Wells, Ubud’s authority on amphibians and birds.  Where had two kilograms of toads gone?

It seems Bufo melanosticus or the Asian Spiny Toad is a shy creature, preferring to spend daylight hours in burrows or under piles of leaves.  At night they roam to hunt.  Tracking movements in the dark, they snap up anything that moves, as long as the size is manageable. Toads have been observed to swallow scorpions and centipedes even while the desperate prey is in the act of stinging them.  Baby mice, reptiles and snakes, worms, spiders and all kinds of garden pests are devoured by these eating machines, which spit out only the hairy, poisonous caterpillars.

The toad is not a pretty animal.  These ones are a mustardy greenish brown colour, depending on their mood, and liberally peppered with black. They are lumpish and have little spines on their thick skins.  Another unattractive feature is the powerful toxin they exude from glands in the neck and the back legs. This effective defense mechanism causes predators to drop the toad instantly and retreat, foaming at the mouth, as generations of my dogs have experienced.  Nyoman reports that after handling these toads, people will sometimes break out in a rash around the lips. Unsurprisingly, they have no natural enemies except the Javanese spitting cobra.

Sometimes I encounter a toad while gardening, and it’s always amazing to witness how invisible quite a large toad can be while sitting on a pile of mulch just a few inches away.  A couple of times I’ve inadvertently trod on one in the dark.  As my toes curl around the flaccid shape a signal races to my brain wondering, “What the hell is that???”  I’m sure the toad feels the same.   We part company a split second later with great mutual relief.  I remember one specimen in the highlands of Malaysia many years ago that was so large I thought it was an oversized lawn ornament… until a single giant leap took it into the jungle five metres away.

At the end of the rainy season when the temperature and barometric pressure are just right, Bufo melanosticus begins to get that gleam in its eyes.  This is when the males crank up the volume on the love songs, filling the night with loud croaks and honks. Romantically inclined females are irresistibly drawn to the music, hopping through the wet grass toward the torrid affair that awaits them.  Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. They pair up with shameless haste on a first-come, first served basis, with the male atop the much larger female. The males develop a thickened thumb at breeding time and use this to massage the female and stimulate her to spawn. Sometimes this can take several days.  We have a lot to learn from the animal world.

A few days later, strings of black eggs can be seen suspended between pond plants and a little while afterward they hatch into tadpoles.  This is party time for the fish, snakes and birds that consume them in huge numbers.  It’s a wonder any survive to serenade me through the next rainy season.

Why were the captured toads having an unseasonal orgy in the shopping bag? According to Don, when a large number of toads are gathered together the excitement triggers the appropriate hormones and mass breeding takes place, barometric pressure notwithstanding. And they were probably that interesting mustard colour because they were too hot, he added accusingly as if it was all my fault.

Toads play a critical role in Bali’s food chain, helping to control many pests in the rice fields.  The pesticides used in the rice and vegetable fields kill off the toad’s natural prey.  In conditions when there are not enough insects the females don’t develop eggs, so the toad populations are declining in Bali and elsewhere. And of course their habitat is swiftly shrinking.

In the dry season Bufo melanosticus hangs out in piles of leaves and loose earth, emerging once in a while for a snack.  Now that the rains have begun I’m seeing toads in the garden again. And last night the temperature and barometric pressure must have been perfect for toad love. The darkness was raucous with a mounting chorus of amorous amphibians in my ponds.  In my little corner of Bali at least, the show will go on.

By Ibu Kat


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Ibu Kat’s book of stories

Bali Daze – Free-fall off the Tourist Trail  and Retired, Rewired – Living Without Adult

Supervision in Bali are available from Ganesha Books  and on Kindle