This isn’t one of those creatures I’m going to ooh and aah over and say how incredible and amazing it is. It is pretty much just gross. But, gross things can be interesting, and the Surinam toad certainly is. That’s what makes it gross, actually. The toad (which is actually a frog) is named after the country Suriname, which is in north eastern South America. Unsurprisingly, that’s where the Surinam toad lives, although it isn’t just confined to Suriname. Toads (and frogs) don’t really respect borders. Don’t ask me why. It’s a bit rude in my opinion. It actually lives in Brazil, Guyana, and even Trinidad (a little island off of the northern part of South America).
The toad lives its entire life in water, and is ideally suited to it. Its favourite habitat is murky, muddy ponds and streams, and here’s why. This is what it looks like:
Which looks a lot like a leaf, if you ask me. Just picture that animal in a muddy pond. There’s no way you’d ever think it was anything but a dried up brown leaf.And that’s the point. The toad spends it’s time in the pond, eating pretty much whatever comes its way, including crustaceans, insects, and small fish. It lies in wait at the bottom of its pond just waiting for food to come too close. Eyes aren’t really too useful in murky waters, so the Surinam toad doesn’t use its tiny ones. Instead, those long, star-like fingers on its front legs sense movements made by prey, and the toad lunges in and gobbles it up. Interestingly, the Surinam toad doesn’t have a tongue, nor does it have teeth. So that large, flat head doesn’t only provide camouflage, it allows the toad to swallow things whole.
Pretty interesting so far, right? And not that gross. But the icky part is coming, I promise. It all has to do with the Surinam toad’s method of reproduction. First, a male and female toad have to meet. The male orchestrates this phase by emitting a clicking sound into the water. When a willing female is found, the two go into action. The male grips the female with his legs, and the pair start spinning around, while swimming to the surface for a breath of air (mating is hard work, after all!). When they reach the surface, the pair flip over, so they are floating on their backs. At this point the female releases between three and ten eggs, which land on the male’s belly. They then flip over again, and when they land on the bottom of the pond the male fertilizes the eggs while pushing them onto the females back.
This process is repeated over and over, until as many as one hundred eggs are laid on the female’s back. For some reason (possibly cloacal secretions) the eggs only stick to the female’s back, not the male’s belly or any other parts of the toads, or even the other eggs. So far pretty standard, right? Male calls for female, mating ritual progresses, eggs are laid. Not all that exciting. But here it is, the reason you’ve all read this far, and the reason that writing this post made me feel kind of nauseous (I’m not joking, it really did).
After the fertilized eggs are placed on the female’s back, they sink into her skin. Into her skin. A cyst then grows around each egg, complete with a horny covering. And this is where the young develop. In their mother’s back. They grow tails for a short time, possibly to increase surface area for oxygen uptake. But eventually, the tadpoles grow into fully developed frogs, still in momma’s back. Once grown, the little toads burst out of their cysts and begin solitary life. Mostly the toads break through the cysts on their own, but if they don’t, their mother can exert pressure on the cysts and force them out. I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty foul. Here’s a picture just to illustrate how disgusting it is:
Maybe other people wont find this as gross as I do. All I know is that looking at it makes me uncomfortable. I’ll admit, it’s a pretty fascinating adaptation. But I sure wouldn’t want to be a Surinam toad.
Cover image By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=440762