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Davis, California

Monday, October 25, 2021

Horny toads

I’ve got a riddle for you: Who’s got bulgy eyes, leathery skin and a libido on over-drive?

No, it’s not Samantha from “Sex and the City.”

Give up?

Meet the western toad. These toads live throughout the western U.S. – from San Diego to Alberta. They swim in ponds, munch on insects and look for a lot of sex. There are often more male toads than females, so competition for mates gets cutthroat; picture “The Bachelorette,” but with more warts and fewer roses.

“It’s pretty hysterical because they’re pretty much jumping around, grabbing everything that moves,” said Greg Pauly, a postdoctoral researcher in the evolution and ecology department at UC Davis.

Pauly said male western toads will try to mate with anything that looks like a female. He’s seen males latch onto tennis balls, Budweiser cans, even “a particularly well-shaped clump of mud.” It is so common for confused males to jump onto other males, that the species has developed a “release call” – a croak that means “getthehelloff.”

Lucky males who actually find a female can still mess it up. Multiple males pile on, forming what Pauly calls a “mating ball.”

It doesn’t end well.

“There have actually been females that have drowned in the water,” Pauly said.

In most species, male toads croak to help females find them. The females then browse around and pick the best male.

“What’s weird about the western toads is that it’s really the only toad in North America that doesn’t have a mating call,” Pauly said.

To me, western toads sound like a failure in evolution, but Pauly says there’s a very good reason not to call.

Silence means survival.

“It’s incredibly energetically expensive to call,” Pauly said.

Many male toads will lose half their body weight during mating season. Time spent calling is time not spent catching food.

Calling is also a huge safety risk.

“All sorts of predators and parasites can hear that call,” Pauly said.

Skunks, river otters and raccoons all think toads make for a tasty dinner.

There’s another drawback to calling: “sneaker” males. Sneaker males hang out around calling males. The sneakers wait for a female to find the caller, and then they ambush her.

Calling species have an easier time finding females, but a harder time staying alive. With all these risks, some species avoid calling unless they’re desperate.

“Western toads have taken this to the extreme where they don’t even call anymore,” Pauly said.

Female toads, I know the feeling.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT can b reached at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.

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