Jun. 5, 2009 by Judy
Years ago, when I lived in Paia, my shower was outside. I used to have to exit the bathroom, turn the corner, open the stall door and hop onto the big paving stone set in the gravel of the shower space. The showerhead came out of the wall about 15 feet up. I am tall, so I loved this. It was spacious, there were treetops tossing all around the top of the enclosing wall, the bottom edge of the enclosing wall was about 5 inches off the ground, and it was full of creatures off and on, seasonally dependent. Again, I am a bio-geek. I LIKE crawlies in my life. It pretty much all interests me—the cane spiders that kept the big roaches out of the kitchen, the mantids that fell asleep head-down on the walls, the geckos that would stroll the ceiling chirping. Centipedes, er, not so much. They had amnesty until one bit me in bed, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
There were a few months of the year when I would enter the shower and note round depressions in the gravel about large enough for a tennis ball or a small melon. This was as confusing as crop circles until one day I realized it: toads. Cane toads. Cane toads snoozing in cool wet gravel and exiting under the walls when my footsteps sounded outside the door.
There are no native toads or frogs to Hawaii, and the one we call the Cane Toad (Bufo marinus) is also the famous toad introduced to Australia many years ago, an introduction the Ozzies deeply regret. Hawaii gave them some of ours, which we’d just recently acquired. Generous Aloha spirit in action…maybe they’ll forgive us for it eventually.
There’s a nice image of one here:
Hawaii never saw the overrunning, Biblical plague-level numbers of Cane toads that Australians suffered through, but these are very common toads in Hawaii now, and you may have already seen many a flattened and dried specimen on the island roads. These are originally North/Central/South American toads that were introduced to Hawaii to put a dent in crop pests in the 1930s. They are fairly omnivorous, happily eating anything much smaller or slower than their roughly 10-inch, 2 pound, brownish bumpy adult selves (females a tad larger than the males, what with all that egg production to do). Wikipedia says that the largest recorded specimen was 5.8 pounds. That’s kitten-eating size. Other-toad-eating size. Yikes size. I’ve seen one go quite cheerfully after an 8-inch, fully adult and defensive centipede, and I have to say that I was impressed.
Image of a man inexplicably dangling a huge Cane toad is here:
These are the toads that can secrete some really nasty toxic chemical slime—Bufotenin--from glands on their heads when they’re good and freaked out, and therefore it is highly recommended that you wash your hands/kids after handling one, get any foaming and miserable over-curious dogs/cats to the vet ASAP and don’t lick them, no matter what the stoners say—sure, you might hallucinate. And sure, you might find yourself fighting some gnarly mouth fungus…or die.
Estimates of the life cycle of this adaptable and voracious muncher actually go up to 15 years, but I’m thinking that’s probably the best of all possible toad worlds. Females can lay up to 20,000 eggs in a go, the tadpoles are somewhat toxic, and no native predators exist in Hawaii to keep their numbers down. Rumor has it that the rats will have a go now and again, but that’s gotta be a desperate rat.
Cane toads like to be near water (for breeding) and like all toads they like to stay dampish (hence the depressions in my shower gravel).
How these toads affect the ecology of the islands is not clear. They eat everything, not much eats them, they’re toxic and breed quickly. None of that can be great news for already fragile and imperiled ecosystems.
On the damper side of the island, or even on the dry side but near somebody’s little decorative pond or whatever, listen for the alien sound of male Cane toads calling for females. Ponder the idea that that sound was never known here until the 1930s. It’s an odd, really unsettling burr of a sound—unsettling until you know what it is, anyway. Think about this scrambled planet, then think about these islands trying to hold onto their identity, their ecosystem resilience.
Cane toads, what to do about them? Let me know if you get any good ideas (that don’t make the original problem worse), but don’t go licking the thing trying to get some cosmic hallucinogenic insight. A nice dry red wine is better for thinking, trust me.