What to do about Sonoran Desert toads emerging from hibernation

Jeff Kronenfeld

A Sonoran Desert toad.(Arizona Game and Fish Department Photographer George Andrejko)

By Jeff Kronenfeld / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Pinal County, AZ) Have you noticed any giant amphibians hopping around your yard or street lately?

If so, you’re not alone. All over Pinal County, Sonoran Desert toads, the largest native toad in the U.S., are emerging from underground resting places due to recent monsoons.

Though these amphibians don't threaten humans, their poison can harm or even kill dogs. Unfortunately, humans can and do harm these hardy hoppers in order to extract their poison, the only known animal source of 5-MeO-DMT, a powerful and potentially dangerous psychoactive.

Throughout the summer, the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) receives calls from people concerned by or curious about Sonoran Desert toads. If you encounter one, the AZGFD Amphibians and Reptiles Program Manager Thomas Jones has some advice.

“If they don't have small dogs that are going to mess with the toad, then leave it alone,” Jones said. “The toads pose no danger to humans whatsoever. They're really fun to watch, especially if you've got an outdoor light and insects are coming to the lights.”

A Sonoran Desert toad.(Arizona Game and Fish Department Photographer George Andrejko)

Dogs and Toads

Even when it comes to canines, the toads are only a threat when attacked. Although most dogs will satisfy their curiosity with a sniff, some pooches prefer to make a quick snack of any hopping amphibians.

All amphibians have poison in their skin, according to Jones, so keeping your dog from consuming them is always a good idea. Although spade-foot toads, Great Plains toads, Woodhouse’s toads, and other amphibians common in Pinal County could turn your pooch's stomach if ingested, dogs who eat Sonoran Desert toads can experience things much worse than a belly ache.

In these cases, Jones suggests a more proactive approach.

“There is that segment of the pet dog population that wants to chew on everything, and if you've got a dog like that, then I would say, pick up the toad, take it out of your yard, and let it go,” Jones said. “If you hold a toad, wash your hands. That's all I would say, so that you don't inadvertently come in contact with a mucous membrane, say your eyes or your nose or even your mouth, because it will cause a burning sensation.”

If your dog eats or bites a Sonoran Desert toad, Jones suggested thoroughly washing the pet's mouth with water and then immediately taking it to a vet.

A Sonoran Desert toad.(Arizona Game and Fish Department Photographer George Andrejko)

Playing Frogger for keeps

Sonoran Desert toads hibernate underground most of the year, usually only emerging for a few months around the late summer rainy season. In years when the monsoons fail to arrive or deliver less rain than usual, the toads may not emerge, making the tracking of their populations somewhat tricky.

“What we can do is monitor whether or not we are seeing these animals year after year in the same place,” Jones said. “If we don’t, we ask the question, ‘Why?’ In some cases, it might be because there hasn't been a good rain, and they haven't emerged, and we might have the impression that they are declining, or they're missing, but then the next year, when we have a really good monsoon, then suddenly they're back again.”

Arizona’s 2020 monsoon season was the driest one ever recorded, according to the National Weather Service. Yet, 2021 was significantly wetter, with its monsoon ranking as the 20th wettest since 1895. The current year’s monsoon has been relatively wet so far, but over the century, monsoon rainfall is predicted to fall by as much as 40%, according to a report in Nature Climate Change.

Wildly fluctuating weather patterns and bite-happy hounds aren't the only dangers Sonoran Desert toads must contend with. Habitat loss is another major threat, with a USDA report showing that 90% of Arizona and New Mexico's riparian areas had been converted to other land uses over the last century.

Roads are another peril, especially since toads will congregate on puddles formed on the impermeable blacktop. More than 12,000 amphibians die annually on the roads around Saguaro National Park, according to a study in Human-Wildlife Interactions.

Although it is legal to collect Sonoran Desert toads in Arizona with the proper license, 5-MeO-DMT has been a Schedule 1 substance for over a decade, and federal law prohibits collecting toads to extract the compound. That said, interest in the psychedelic substance continues to grow, with Jones reporting a notable uptick in interest over the past few years.

Robert Villa, president of the Tucson Herpetological Society and a research associate at the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill, stills see other factors as more significant threats to the toads than those interested in smoking the amphibian's poison.

“Poaching, at least until recently, took a backseat to human growth, habitat modification or destruction, and climate change,” Villa said. “I would say those three are the biggest issues that everything in the Sonoran Desert faces, and toads are a part of that.”

On the other hand, Jones struck a more optimistic tone regarding the toad's population status and long-term prospects.

“Our impression is that they are doing quite well, and they are widespread and abundant,” Jones said.

For those interested in supporting the Tucson Herpetological Society’s Sonoran Desert toad research and conservation efforts, you can donate by following this link and selecting the Sonoran Desert Toad Fund.

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Jeff is an award-winning freelance journalist covering news, business, science and the arts. His work has been published in Discover Magazine, Vice, the Phoenix New Times and other outlets.

Tempe, AZ

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