Around the Island

Mashomack Musings:The vanishing toad

Some animals go unnoticed until they’re gone.

Throughout the spring and early summer, frog choruses are so ubiquitous across Shelter Island they become background noise. But what if the frogs disappeared? You’d almost certainly notice the eerie silence.

Across the world, amphibians have been disappearing at an unprecedented rate — faster than any other group of animals. Frogs, toads, and salamanders are extremely sensitive to environmental changes caused by habitat destruction, climate change, pollution, and invasive species.

Here on Shelter Island, we’ve experienced our very own amphibian declines. Leopard Frogs disappeared across Long Island and Shelter Island in the 1990s. Two species of toads have largely vanished on Shelter Island but oddly remain common in the rest of Suffolk County.

During a biological survey in 1981, one researcher reported “several hundred, or possibly a few thousand, newly transformed toads along a sunlit stretch of Mashomack Road.” Just 10 years later, Fowler’s Toads and Eastern Spadefoot Toads seem to have vanished. When the toads disappeared, so too did the hognose snake, a bizarre species with a toad-specific diet.

The completely harmless Eastern Hognose Snake, a toad-specialist. (Credit: Paul Block)

The collapse of our toad populations coincided with the global spread of an amphibian-killing fungus and an increase in bullfrogs, which are known to tolerate and spread the fungus. It’s likely that some combination of environmental changes and disease are to blame.

The call of toads is distinct and unmistakable — an unnerving scream that sounds like a nasal “Waaa.” Last weekend, a Shelter Island resident confirmed toads calling from a local neighborhood. This news provides hope that toads are still hopping around our island, eating mosquitos and playing their role in the ecosystem.

If you believe you’ve seen or heard a toad on Shelter Island, please report sightings to [email protected]