Sleep 24 hours a day and wake up only when you are hungry

Couch’s spadefoot toads are common in many lowland areas of El Paso. As you read this there are literally thousands of spadefoot toads a foot or so beneath the soil surface waiting in a state of estivation for the next summer rains.

El Paso’s most amazing residents

By Rick LoBello, Education Curator

Ever wonder why the desert seems so barren with few animals in sight? It is not because they do not exist; after all you can see pictures of desert animals in books and on the TV and Internet.  The reason why you don’t see them every day is because you are either too busy driving down the road to stop and go outside and look for them, or because they are hiding from the desert sun waiting just for the right weather conditions to search for food and mates.

The Chihuahuan Desert is one of the most biodiverse deserts in the world with thousands of known species of wildlife and plants including reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, invertebrates, cacti and more.  One group of desert animals that you hear very little about are the desert toads. If described on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most out of mind, El Pasoans would probably rank desert toads as a 10.   With all the development going on in El Paso frogs in our area need our help more than ever. Once a piece of land is graded most biological organisms living in the soil structure are destroyed. No one knows how to re-create what nature has taken thousands of years to create, so you can imagine how many living things are affected.

Male red-spotted toad calling for a female toad.

Here in El Paso we have three common frog and toad species. The most common is the red-spotted toad. They are often seen hopping around neighborhoods as soon as temperatures warm up. The red spots are very prominent and it’s hard to confuse a red-spotted toad with other species. Like all of our frogs, red-spotted toads spend the cooler and dryer parts of the year underground waiting for the rainy season and for temperatures to warm up.

Couch’s spadefoot digging in before the sun comes up.

Another common species, the Couch’s spadefoot toad, has little black spade projections on its hind feet to help the toad burrow underground. Right now, as you sit at your computer and read this blog, there are literally thousands of spadefoot toads waiting beneath the soil surface a foot or so below in a state of estivation. This form of sleep is different from hibernation that occurs with some animals during the winter. Estivation is a state of inactivity and a lowered metabolic rate entered in response to high temperatures and arid conditions during the summer. So, when it dries up after summer rains most desert toads estivate. When conditions are right with warmer temperatures and heavy rains, they come out of the ground focused on eating and breeding. In some areas it may seem like it’s raining toads!

Woodhouse’s toad

Another toad that we have in El Paso is the biggest one of all, the Woodhouse’s toad reaching a length of 5 inches. On rainy summer days and nights, it is often seen near the Franklin Canal and near other wet areas.  It is very similar to the Texas toad, but does not have a stripe on the back and crests on the head.  A female Woodhouse’s toad can lay up to 28,000 eggs! This toad was named for naturalist Samuel Washington Woodhouse who explored the Southwest during the mid-18th Century. During the summer Woodhouse’s toads have been known to breed in our spider monkey moat.

Amphibians play an important role in the food chain as predators of insects and as prey for other animals. They also help people by acting as environmental alarms because their thin skins are especially sensitive to environmental changes. Like so many of the animals that we rarely see and are often misunderstood, frogs and toads need friends.   Look for them after summer rains especially at night and do your part to create frog friendly neighborhoods by making places for them to hid from the desert sun.

All photos by Rick LoBello

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