Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/My toads




The toad,” observes an old and quaint writer, “is the most noble kind of frog, most venomous, and remarkable for courage and strength,” such qualities being evidently indicative of nobility in the mind of the narrator. So, among the Hindoos, the cobra is honoured as the creature of highest caste next to the Brahmin, and an old and very vicious Hoonuman is deeply respected as a very high caste monkey; and so, throughout all oriental nations, the surest road to respect is to insult their chiefs and thrash the people in general, giving no reason for either proceeding. In the present case, however, there are but little grounds for the respect which our author evidently entertained for the toad, as, after a long and somewhat intimate acquaintance with this batrachian, I have found his venom impotent, have never witnessed any display of his courage, and think his strength to be, bulk for bulk, inferior to that of a frog. Still, the toad is a respectable animal enough, and to those who will wisely discard the prejudice attached to its name, a very curious and interesting animal. Ever since I used to potter up and down our garden, a small six-year old naturalist, with magnifying glass always open in one hand, and an empty pill-box in the other, the toad has been a great avourite with me, though, perhaps, considering the rude handling to which it was continually subjected, the feeling was hardly reciprocated on the part of the reptile.

En passant, let me speak in the highest terms of the benefit conferred on children by letting them run about as they will in a rough and ready kind of garden, where they may work their own sweet wills, dig, plant, sow, build, and play, just as they like, without being subjected to the annoyance of being confined to the gravel, and forbidden under severe penalties to place a foot on the beds. It is an education in itself to them, this wild freedom. They learn a thousand things that books will never teach them; the use of their limbs, the use of their eyes, readiness of resource, and quick appreciation. They are sure to realise in vivid action every event of which they hear or read, and thus indelibly fix their knowledge on their childish memory.

For my own part, I know that there was not an event in Robinson Crusoe, the Swiss Family Robinson, Persian Fables, or Arabian Nights, that we did not act over and over again; while the histories of England, Greece, and Rome were delineated with equal force.

Not only were we wrecked on desert islands—not only did we rescue Men Fridays (darkening our faces with black-lead, in order to represent that suave savage in character)—not only did we build “falcons’ nests” in the apple tree, and make rope-ladders out of clothes lines—not only, in fine, did we reduce to practice any practicable event in our favourite books, and “make believe” fervently in all impracticable cases, but we pursued the same system with severer studies, and acted in turn every historical person of whom we read, though the originals might have found some difficulty in recognizing their representatives, or the localities in which the particular adventure occurred. For us, however, the result was perfectly satisfactory. If we pushed each other out of the loft window, the Tarpeian rock was sufficiently indicated; and if the representative of the criminal happened to hurt himself by the fall, it only made things look more real. And so, whether we gained our kingdoms by seeing flights of vultures, killed our brothers for jumping over the wall, got killed ourselves by an arrow in the eye at an imaginary Hastings, or one through the heart in an equally imaginary New Forest, the rocking-horse being of great service in the latter catastrophe, we certainly contrived to impress on our minds a tolerably vivid idea of the circumstances.

Children thus learn at the earliest years to distinguish one plant from another, to know a flower from a weed, and to learn something of their various properties; while, with regard to the animal kingdom, they gain a fund of practical experience that is sure to be valuable in after life.

It is no small matter for them to get rid of a fear, to distinguish between the harmless and hurtful beings, and by watching their interesting habits, to feel a sympathy with their fellow creatures, and to appreciate too keenly the infinite value of life to kill any living thing without just cause. We were never afraid of black beetles, daddy long-legs, or of any of the insect tribe, except the few that wore stings; while the frogs and toads were our special pets, lived in magnificent edifices made of bricks and flowerpots, and had each its own name. Long before we read about them in books, we knew all about their absorption of water through the skin, their sudden cry of fear when alarmed, the equally sudden change of colour, and the curious fact that a frog which lived in a dark hole was always brown, and one that lived in the open air was yellow; while, as to the venomous nature of the toads, as energetically detailed by our nursery maids, we treated the notion with supreme contempt, and handled a toad as easily as if it had been a ball. I am sure that many persons,—young ladies especially,—who cannot rid themselves of real terrors at the sight of many a harmless and useful creature, would have been much happier if their early lives had been spent in a garden such as has been described.

Having always felt an interest in these ungainly but truly useful batrachians, I begged from a friend a fine pair of toads that had just been sent from Jersey, and placed them in a glass fern-case.

Their first proceeding was to establish hiding-places, each choosing its own corner for that purpose. The method in which a toad ensconces itself is rather curious. Supposing, for example, that it wishes to burrow into the base of a small mound, it begins by finding some small spot where the earth is tolerably; loose it plants the extremity of the back against the mound, wriggles about in a position that reminds the observer of the green crab shovelling itself under the sand, and pushes the earth from beneath it with the hind feet, passing it forwards under the body, where it is taken up by the fore feet and put out of the way. Inadequate as the means may seem, the soft, skinny feet of the toad being apparently the worst spades that could well be devised, the creature will sink itself below the ground in a wonderfully short space of time. It is remarkable that a toad never enters its hole except by backing into it—at least I have never seen one do so, whether it be at liberty or in confinement.

Having fairly established themselves, they looked out for food, although, with all of their kin, they were capable of sustaining a very prolonged fast without any apparent inconvenience. As at that time I was living in the very heart of London, it was not easy to procure the proper kind of food for the toads, who feed wholly upon living creatures, and will touch nothing that does not move. However, I contrived to bring home a miscellaneous collection in several boxes, and tried experiments with them.

They would eat earthworms, provided that they were clean and lively, so as to writhe about in that manner which a toad cannot resist. They were captured after the usual custom, namely, by a sudden “flick” of the curious tongue, which is so rapidly moved that, with the most careful attention, the eye can only distinguish a pink streak suddenly appear and as suddenly vanish. A slight slapping sound is heard as the tongue is thrown towards the prey.

The fact has long been known, but the details have, I believe, not yet been fully described. It is by no means necessary, as has been repeatedly asserted, for the toad to remain motionless, with its eyes intently fixed on its victim. On the contrary, I have often seen the toad catch beetles in spots where it could not see them, and without even attempting to look for them. The tongue can be flung in any direction, and always with equal certainty of aim, at right angles to the head for example, out of either corner of the mouth, or even under the body. I have repeatedly seen the creature aim at an insect that was crawling under its body, and mostly with success; if not so, a second shot was sure to be effectual.

I used frequently to feed them with blue-bottle flies, by the simple process of putting them into the fern-case and closing the entrance. In spite of the wings and activity of the insect, the toad was sure to have it before long. At the first buzz, the toad would come all in a hurry out of his hole, tumbling over stones and sticks in his eagerness, and evidently listening for the sound of the fly’s wings. As soon as the insect settled within reach of the tongue (and when the reptile stood on its hind legs it had a marvellous reach), the toad used to raise its head with an oddly knowing air, and looked as eager as a cat which hears a mouse behind the door. It would then scramble hastily towards the fly, when a red streak would be seen to flash from its mouth, a slight slap was heard, and the fly had vanished. If the insect took alarm, the toad was quite content to wait, and was certain to hunt it down at last.

It may be here mentioned that the root of the toad’s tongue is set on the front of the lower jaw, the point being directed backward; so that when an insect is captured, the mere return of the tongue flings it down the throat. A few decided gulps are, however, needful to complete the operation, and the aspect of the toad while engaged in swallowing is most absurd, the elevated eyes being closed and disappearing entirely by the exertion. The dimensions of the insect make no difference in the magnitude of the gulp and the disappearance of the eyes.

Few persons who have not personally watched a toad can form any idea of the dexterous manner in which it uses its fore-paws, these apparently clumsy members serving the purpose of hands, and being frequently employed in lieu of those important limbs. If, for example, the toad has snapped up a tolerably long worm, it will probably be incommoded by the natural objection entertained by the annelid with respect to its lodgment in its captor’s stomach, and the struggles which it makes to escape, its head and tail usually protruding at opposite sides of the mouth.

Now, the toad is strangely indifferent to wounds and injuries, and even if nearly severed in two seems to be as unconcerned as if it had no personal interest in the calamity. But nothing appears to annoy the strange creature so much as any object sticking in the sides of the mouth, and it displays a vast amount of uneasiness until it has removed the annoyance. In order to effect this object, the fore-paws are brought into play, the creature grasping at the irritating object just as a monkey would do under similar circumstances, and either pushes it down the throat or throws it away, according to its fitness or unfitness for food. I have known the leg of a beetle, or even the wing of a fly, worry the toad sadly, while a small blade of grass excited it to such a degree that it very nearly looked angry.

There is one curious point connected with the toad, which I never have been able to comprehend. Supposing it to be pursuing a fly, and the insect to have settled out of reach, the toad sits watching it just as the lion is said to watch a baboon or a human being who takes refuge in a tree. While thus watching, the last joint of the middle toe of the hind feet is continually jerked with a convulsive kind of movement, twitching in unison, at irregular intervals. The movement seems to be quite involuntary, and I suppose is analogous to the waving of the lion’s tail while the animal is crouching in view of its intended prey.

Although the toad can endure a very long fast, there seems to be no limit to its gormandising capacities when it meets with a plenitful supply of food. The smaller of my specimens ate successively several worms, a great “woolly bear” caterpillar (i. e. the larva of the tiger moth Arctia caja), a large grub, apparently the larval state of some beetle, a number of smaller insects, and a large ground beetle (Carabus violaceus). These various capabilities render it a most useful animal, and one which should be carefully guarded by every owner of a garden. For at night, when the obnoxious slugs, flies, beetles, and other insects are on the move, the toad comes out to prey on them, and quietly performs very great service by the steady, thorough-going manner in which it clears the plants of every creature that moves.

Some entomologists, whose zeal for the enrichment of their cabinets exceeds their humanity, are in the habit of sallying out into the fields at early dawn, killing all the toads that they can find, and opening them for the purpose of getting the insects that have been swallowed during the night. Some of the rarest British specimens have been taken in this manner, beetles being the usual denizens of the locality. Conchologists are accustomed to employ a similar mode of collecting the objects of their research, and find some of the best specimens in the stomachs of several deep sea fishes; and microscopists in like manner find a vast museum of beautiful objects within the digestive organs of various molluscs.

The beautiful eye of the toad is proverbial, redeeming the ungainliness of its general aspect, and having in all probability given rise to the fabled jewel within the head. Bright and richly coloured as is the eye, with its round, bold, fiery chesnut hue, it is without the least vestige of expression, and retains its full brilliancy long after the animal is dead. As to the venomous powers of the toad, they are not to be found in the mouth, as is popularly imagined, but in two rather large glands on the sides of the head, which project boldly and are plainly visible. If one of these protuberances be squeezed between the fingers, a whitish, creamy-looking liquid will be ejected, and perhaps to some little distance. While performing this operation, it will be as well to hold the toad in such a manner that the secretion may not be shot into the eyes, as in that case it would certainly cause severe pain, and might probably produce violent inflammation. Still, it will not be ejected without the employment of considerable force, and is never injurious to human beings.

Briefly to sum up the character of the toad: it is not pretty, is entirely harmless, extremely useful, easily tamed, and worthy of being cherished by those who prefer deeds to outward seeming; it is a creature of curious and interesting habits, and affords a rich field to any one with time and opportunity, for clearing up several important but disputed points in physiology.

J. G. Wood.