By Paula Musto
Frogs. Toads. What animals have been made fun of more? They croak, quack, chirp, moan and groan. Many are slimy, while others have dry, bumpy skin. Their eyes bulge atop their heads. Some exude a deadly poison.
These tailless amphibians are among the most diverse members of the animal kingdom with more than 6,000 different species around the world. Having roamed the Earth for more than 200 million years, at least as long as the dinosaurs, they are quite an evolutionary success story, thought to be among our first ancestors to venture from water to the terrestrial world beyond.
Yet, there is an oft-asked question: What’s the difference between frogs and toads? The answer can be tricky because while every toad is a frog, not all frogs are toads. Both are considered part of the frog family and share similar characteristics, but there are significant differences according to Keith Mastin, former director of education at the Western North Carolina Nature Center. These include the following:
• Toads usually refer to frogs that have rough, warty skin and short hind legs that are well-suited to hopping and walking through their preferred habitat in woods and gardens. Long-legged frogs, on the other hand, are mostly aquatic with sleek bodies making them extremely capable jumpers.
• Quick-moving frogs can leap more than 20 times their body length allowing them to escape danger in an instant. Stocky, slow-moving toads have a different, more lethal defense mechanism—toxic skin secretions that ward off predators.
• Most frog eggs are laid in shallow water in jelly-like clusters of individual eggs. Toads lay their eggs in water, as well, but they are laid in lines resembling pearl strands. Once hatched, the eggs of both species morph into tiny, legless, fish-like creatures called tadpoles or pollywogs. These wiggly, fast-swimming critters eventually absorb their gills and tails, develop lungs and become adults.
“These are fascinating and somewhat mysterious creatures,” says Mastin, noting that we more frequently hear a frog or toad rather than actually seeing them. “Unless we stumble upon a toad in the garden or spot a frog at water’s edge, these animals are hard to see in their native habitats.”
However, out-of-sight does not mean out of mind. The loud chirping sound many species make is hard to miss, especially during spring breeding season. Mastin calls the symphonic noise “a chorus of love songs” the critters emit to attract mates.
Perhaps, the most famous (and loudest) are what are known as spring peepers, a frog species the size of a pinky fingernail that produces distinctive, high-pitched shrills said to signal the end of winter. For those who live near ponds and lakes or who have a pool or water feature in their backyards, the relentless peeping sounds heard from March through early May are a seasonal occurrence and, depending on your perspective, a musical delight or an irritating racket.
While many may think of frogs as cute, otherworldly cartoon creatures, they are actually vital contributors to a healthy ecosystem and play a critical role in our food chain, both as predators and prey.
Frogs and toads devour a wide variety of bugs (such as moths, grasshoppers, flies, crickets, mosquitoes and spiders), thereby helping to control insect populations. Their vociferous appetite not only keeps pesky critters from wreaking havoc on crops but also helps prevent the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. As prey, frogs provide valuable food for birds, lizards, snakes, raccoons and other wildlife.
Underscoring their importance to the environment, frogs have often been likened to canaries. Miners once carried canaries into mines to detect poisonous gas in underground tunnels. If toxic fumes were present, the canaries would die, and the miners knew to evacuate immediately. In the same fashion, frogs, with their sensitive and highly porous skin, act as natural bio-indicators, meaning they can measure the health of an environment. What alarms scientists today is that frogs around the world are showing signs of stress due to pollution and other human activity.
Appalachian Wildlife Rescue (AWR), whose mission it is to rehabilitate and release injured or orphaned wildlife, counts frogs and toads among the wild animals in its care, largely due to human interactions. These animals are often injured after a collision with lawn equipment, an automobile strike or even a bike collision. Small frogs get stepped on as well. Or, people keep them as a pet, but soon realize it is extremely difficult to care for a wild species and, at best, end up taking the failing animal to a wildlife rehabilitator for care. Often the animals simply perish.
“We want people to help look out for frogs and toads,” says Sarah Gilmore, AWR operations coordinator, who recently had four orphaned wood frogs under her care at the AWR care center. Happily, they were successfully released back into the wild. “These are extraordinary animals,” Gilmore says, “and an incredibly important species for our environment.”
Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit based in Candler whose mission is to help injured or orphaned wildlife, support WNC’s wildlife rehabilitation network and provide wildlife conservation education. To help save wildlife, donate and learn more, visit AppalachianWild.org.