Toads and Their Mysterious Minds

By Mary Higgins, M.Ed.

With their dry, warty skin and bulging eyes, the American toad is not a particularly attractive animal but still draws attention with children and some women, at least according to fairy tale lore. Weighing less than one ounce, the common toad can experience feelings, hard as it may be to believe.

With their amazing brains, toads have been able to follow a maze in lab settings, but when you hang out with them, more mysteries unravel about their brain capacity. Last summer I had two frogs become daily swimming pals with my toads. Unfortunately, the frogs’ lives were very short. One died followed by the other a month later. One of my toads, after the death of the second frog, became highly agitated, and reared up on her hind legs, climbing the walls of the terrarium. She was unable to calm down until she could see that the other toad she lives with, was still alive.

I have been keeping toads for seventeen years and have long suspected that toads experience feelings of sadness and compassion. At the time when my third toad began his journey to the great pond in the sky, his partner in the box reached one arm across the departing one’s back as though offering comfort.

Toads also seem to have a long memory. When one toad steals the food offered to another, it’s time for a head tackle. The toad who’s been denied the food sends a strong message, placing its upper body on the head of the other toad. Hoping to avoid the clash of the titans, I recently separated my toads for forty-eight hours, thinking they would forget the incident. No such luck. Within moments of being returned to the box, the toad who felt wronged immediately tackled the one who stole his worm.

As with dogs, there is an alpha toad. Whoever has been occupying the premises the longest develops a sense of entitlement in receiving food, leaving the box for a walk and securing preferred areas: water bowl, stone to sit on or a tunnel to hide inside of. As toads love the security of touching walls, the smaller of my two water bowls is the “preferred” place. Even when the water is allowed to evaporate, I will find one toad sitting in this cozy little container.

Toads also enjoy trading places by using some crude architectural skills. Having read that toads see in color, I decorate my terrariums with small brightly colored foam blocks in one area with moss and branches covering the rest. It’s not unusual to find these burrowers having moved the blocks to lie beneath them, remodeling the place for their comfort and security. One toad will remain in this spot for 12 hours while the other sits in water until they exchange locations. Who knows what goes in the minds of the toads–it’s a mystery to us!