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Look But Don’t Lick

They are not very attractive, but Colorado River toads and sugar cane toads are fascinating creatures. Definitely look but don’t lick.

We are used to getting warnings. The bisphenol A in canned foods will do you in. So will artificial sweeteners. Sugar too. Those yoga pants you wear? They may be rubbing those nasty perfluoroalkyl substances into your skin. And as if we didn’t have enough to worry about, the National Park Service in the U.S. warns us to refrain from licking the Sonoran desert toad, also known as the Colorado River toad. I think if I met one of these half-foot long warty creatures in the desert, I could overcome the temptation to pick it up and lick it. Apparently, though, podcaster Joe Rogan, former boxer Mike Tyson and motivational speaker Anthony Robbins have a different take on interactions with the toad. While they have not spoken of romantic interludes with the creatures, they have described their hallucinogenic experience after smoking or ingesting the toad’s secretions.

These amphibians secrete a couple of compounds, bufotenine and O-methylbufotenin, that can indeed produce a psychedelic effect by engaging with serotonin receptors in the brain. But their secretions also contain cardiac glycosides that are potent heart stimulants. As one might therefore expect, there is potential toxicity here. Which of course is exactly why the toads produce these chemicals. A predator trying to make a meal of the toad can have a memorable experience and learn to leave the creature alone. Sometimes, though, the dose may be enough to kill. There are a number of reports of dogs and cats dying after biting into a toad, and at least one human death from drinking a tea made from toad secretions as recommended by an obviously incompetent Chinese herbalist.

The Colorado River toad is not the only hallucinogenic, toxic toad. The “cane toad,” whose name derives from its appetite for the cane beetle that is a scourge for sugar cane growers, is even more fearsome. How fearsome? Just picture a beehive. Then picture a bunch of ugly, warty toads climbing on each other’s back to form a toad pyramid. Now imagine the top toad flicking out his long sticky tongue to catch bees returning to the hive. Or try to visualize one of these ugly creatures attempting to mate with a goldfish and drowning it in the process, or even more bizarre, paying undue attention to a squashed, obviously dead female toad in the middle of a highway. Sounds like something out of a distasteful cartoon, right? But actually this is real life in Queensland, Australia. What’s going on here? Some apparently ingenious science gone wrong.

In the 1930's, the sugar cane industry was just beginning to prosper in Australia. There was one problem, however, which was causing concern among the sugar cane growers: the grayback beetle. Or more specifically, the grubs which hatched from the beetle eggs which were laid in the sugar fields. It seems the grubs' favorite food consisted of the roots of the sugar cane plant. As the beetle infestation spread, the sugar cane crop withered. Farmers tried to rid their fields of the pest by treating the ground with carbon disulfide, a fumigant. But the beetles survived and the farmers got sick. Could there be some safe biological control, they wondered?

The ideal would be a natural beetle predator. Well, one existed. Word had come from Hawaii that a species of toad, known as bufo marinus, had already merited the common name of "cane toad" for its ability to protect sugar cane by dining on grayback beetles. So, in 1935 one hundred and two cane toads were imported into Australia from Hawaii to drive the pesty beetles out of town. A special pond with beautiful water lilies was built to encourage the toads' romantic behavior. It turned out, however, that they needed no encouragement at all and soon the pond was filled with cane toad tadpoles. As they matured, the toads were delivered to the cane fields with the expectation that the beetles would succumb to their voracious appetite.

Unfortunately, though, the beetles could fly and the toads could not. Instead of chasing flying beetles, they would rather sit under streetlights and dine on whatever insect dropped to the ground after being fried by the light. Toad or no toad, the beetles multiplied. So did the toads. Whenever the male toads were not eating, and they would eat anything that fit into their mouth, be it a ping pong ball, a bottle cap or a lit cigarette, they were out searching for females. If none were around, footballs or even human feet could receive their amorous attention. Soon Queensland was overrun with cane toads.

Within a short time, there were reports of chickens becoming sick from drinking toad infested water and dogs being poisoned when they bit into the revolting creatures. By the 1940's the grayback beetle had been successfully controlled with the pesticide lindane, but the toads had become the scourge of the Australian outback. What could be done about the toads? Well, some Australians said if you can't beat' em, lick' em. Or smoke’em. Why? Because the toads produced a hallucinogen which could brighten the hum-drum of everyday life.

It seems some inventive teenagers not only licked the creatures but also boiled them in water and gulped down the "toad slime" they exuded. They dried the toad skins and smoked them. And then they waited for the excretions to produce their mind-bending effects. A cheap high, exciting hallucinations, that's what they were after. But a high is not necessarily what they got. Delirium, high blood pressure, rapid heart beat and even seizures were the side effects they didn't bargain for. One boy actually suffered a heart attack after downing a cupful of twenty five cane toad guppies on a dare.

What will eventually happen to the cane toads? Some birds have learned to turn the toads over on their backs and eat their tongues. There are plans to use toadskins in the making of wallets, belts and jackets. Stuffed cane toads are being sold as souvenirs.

One final thought on the matter of cane toads. Could the presence of a mind-altering substance in the skin have given rise to all those children’s stories about kissing a toad and turning him into a prince? Perhaps. Who knows what you’re going to see after you kiss one of those hallucinogenic warty-skinned little beasts.


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