Synonymous with the word ‘pest’, cane toads are often regarded with disgust and anger—especially by farmers and agricultural workers whose livelihoods they terrorise. But what is the real story behind this lumpy, poisonous, unattractive amphibian? Read on to find out how this particular breed of toad came to possess such a nefarious reputation, and whether or not it’s entirely deserved.
Also known as Rhinella Marine, cane toads can grow to be big and aggressive adult amphibians. The mature, heavyset adults usually measure between 15cm and 25cm long. Their skin is dry, warty and browny-yellow on their back, with a lighter, often white, light yellow or sometimes mottled grey colour on their underside.
Native to South and Central America, cane toads have caused widespread devastation across Australia since they were first introduced. In 1935, around 100 cane toads were brought to Queensland in order to control beetle pests on sugar cane plantations. By the time they were released, 2,400 toads had hatched and since then, their numbers have multiplied exponentially. Today, they are moving westward at an estimated rate of 40 to 60km per year. Originally introduced to just one region of Queensland, the cane toad population has now spread throughout most of the state, as well as to WA, NSW and the NT.
The saying ‘breed like rabbits’ really ought to be changed to ‘breed like cane toads’, because there’s a good reason their population has grown so quickly in such a short time. Each female cane toad can lay up to 35,000 eggs at one time, and they breed at any time of the year.
Eggs are laid in long jelly-like strings; sometimes these strands become tangled to form a mass of eggs. Cane toad tadpoles are small and grow to around 3cm. Unlike native frog tadpoles, cane toad tadpoles don’t come up to the surface of the water to breathe. Smaller young cane toads can easily be mistaken for native frogs. These young toads look quite different to their adult counterparts, with smoother, darker skin.
Why all the hate? Cane toads are not your average toad: they’re extremely poisonous to animals—both wild and domestic (ie family pets).
Cane toads have large parotid glands on their shoulder which secrete a toxin when the toad is feeling threatened. The toxin is a bufotoxin, which can cause rapid heartbeat, convulsions, paralysis, and death. Humans’ skin does not generally react the same way as a native animals’ skin, but the poison may irritate the eyes and mucous membranes.
This parotid gland is found on the amphibian from birth, so even cane toad tadpoles are poisonous. This means that any animal who tries to eat a cane toad (or tadpole) will often die in the process. Cane toads also eat almost anything and everything, including pet food, meat, and food scraps. On a daily basis, they’ll consume insects, and sometimes larger animals including small mammals and native frogs.
To lessen the impact and spread of cane toads, management (rather than control) plans have been established. No Australia-wide control plans are currently actioned, as any eradication plan could simultaneously harm native flora and fauna, so the offending toads have to be collected using traps and barrier fencing, and removed manually.
These methods of removal vary in their effectiveness, as these amphibians are quite wily.
Cane toads are very good at adapting to their surroundings, so even if there were a method designed to remove them, there’s every chance they’d be able to avoid detection. So, it seems the cane toads are here to stay!
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