By Sean Kortis
It’s a rainy night in June. Walking along the road at Sandy Neck Beach, you spot a small amphibian hopping across the street. As you approach, you notice it is different than most toads. Its eyes are large and bulgy, with vertical slit pupils. Its skin is a yellowish brown, and the colors seem to blend together in an hourglass shape along its back. In fact, it doesn’t look much like a “true toad” at all.
That’s because this “toad” is actually related to a very old group of desert amphibians which have adapted to live in dry, arid conditions for most of their life. As you follow the road up to the parking lot and look out across the dunes, you notice that these toads are everywhere: in the road, under the pine trees, atop the dune ridges, even inside the bathhouse! Documenting your discoveries, you identify this to be none other than the Eastern Spadefoot Toad, a rare sighting and a threatened species here in Massachusetts. You later learn that Sandy Neck is one of the last remaining strongholds for the Spadefoot in Massachusetts, cut off and isolated from the few remaining groups.
You return to Sandy Neck the following night to find another Spadefoot on your travels, but after hours of searching you discover no such luck. Night after night, you notice the Spadefoots who once dotted the roads and the dunes just a few days before are nowhere to be seen. Where have they all gone?
Spadefoot toads, like many amphibians, are fossorial inhabitants. This means they spend the majority of their life underground. The Spadefoot is extremely successful at Sandy Neck due to the dry, sandy conditions. Underneath the toad’s hind foot is a small, black flap of cartilage that protrudes out and acts as a shovel. This is their “spade” and it makes them great diggers. If conditions are too dry, Spadefoots have been known to burrow underground up to six feet and remain there for weeks at a time. In truly dry conditions, they can even excrete mucus which hardens the surrounding soil and encapsulates them to prevent any further moisture loss. Rarely emerging from their burrows, Spadefoots only come out to breed and forage on occasion. If conditions are not right, Spadefoots have been known to skip the breeding season entirely and wait until the next year to try again.
Weeks have now passed with no signs of a Spadefoot toad. As the cold weather kicks in, you give up your search. As the seasons pass and the snows melt, you return to hike along the trails at Sandy Neck. It is late Spring, and the water table is extremely high. Heavy Spring rains have filled many of the cranberry bogs and dune swales along the path. This is a particularly rainy night; the end of a heavy spring storm has just arrived. As the skies clear and the moon drops slowly beneath the trees, you hear a most peculiar sound. A deafening chorus of low-pitched belches rings out from all directions. A jubilee of Spadefoots emerge from the sands to breed along the shallow swales of Sandy Neck.
Thousands of eggs will be laid, and in just a short period of time, a lucky few may metamorph and emerge as toadlets, leaving the wetlands to burrow beneath the shifting sands of an ever changing sand bar. But how many will survive, how many remain, and what will become of this mysterious species? The answer lies beneath the ground, in the secret burrows below the dunes. So if by some chance, you are walking along the trails of Sandy Neck and you spot the bulging eyes of a Spadefoot Toad, hopping along the sandy slopes, he may guide you to the answers you seek. Or her perhaps just the sight of such an elusive creature is enough to keep you inspired; working to protect one of its last remaining strongholds, on a beautiful barrier beach in the heart of Cape Cod. A wild place where all can find respite: from the Spadefoot toad, to the Piping Plover, to the people who recreate along its shores, Sandy Neck is home to all who love the beauty and peace she provides.