Over the last 100 years, cane toads have become poster children for the world’s invasive species crisis. While the amphibian’s natural range stretches from Peru and the mid-Amazon region up through Central America, the animal has been deliberately introduced to Australia, New Guinea, Fiji, Hawaii, Florida, and several Caribbean islands. The toxic toads are like environmental wrecking balls, threatening native animals wherever they spread. But don’t write them off as villains just yet. Troublesome as cane toads are, they're also very interesting animals. Here are 10 facts about this pernicious amphibian.
1. CANE TOAD POISON WAS ONCE USED TO COAT ARROW TIPS.
In his 2001 book The Cane Toad: The History and Ecology of a Successful Colonist, Christopher Lever writes that “the Choco Indians of western Colombia used to ‘milk’ toads by placing them in bamboo tubes over an open fire.” Concentrated poison trickled into a bottle, and the dangerous substance was smeared over arrowheads and blowgun darts.
2. THE BIGGEST ONE ON RECORD WEIGHED MORE THAN 5 POUNDS.
According to Guinness World Records, the specimen in question weighed in at 5 pounds 13 ounces and was nearly 14 inches long from snout to vent. As a captive pet, it was able to grow much larger than most wild adults—the average cane toad only reaches 4 to 6 inches in length. Still, unusually big cane toads are sometimes encountered in the wild. Queensland’s all-time record-holder, for example, was just shy of 10 inches long and weighed 2.86 pounds.
There’s a notable male-female size discrepancy; female cane toads are usually larger. That's not where the differences between the two sexes end: Males also have rougher skin than their female counterparts. And the male toads are a noisy bunch, making an assortment of vocalizations including a chirpy “release call.”
3. AUSTRALIA IS NOW HOME TO ABOUT 1.5 BILLION OF THEM.
The crops of Australia’s sugar cane growers had long been under attack by native beetles and their larvae, which devoured the roots of their valuable plants, when irate farmers convinced the government to launch a counter-offensive in 1900. That year, the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations (BSES) was established and immediately began looking for ways to bring the insects under control.
For decades, the BSES tinkered with various pesticides, none of which seemed to work. Then, in 1935, staff entomologist Reginald Mungomery brought over some amphibian reinforcements to eat the beetles. At the time, cane toads had been introduced to Hawaii and Puerto Rico—two places that were also struggling with beetles on sugar farms. Initially, it looked like the experiment had worked in both locations. Early (and questionable) reports indicated that, just as everyone had hoped, the amphibians were gobbling up unwanted insects in huge quantities.
Could they also bring an end to Australia’s larvae problem? The BSES figured that these toads at least deserved an audition. Mungomery was sent to Hawaii with instructions to round up some specimens for testing. Though he had serious doubts about the toads’ effectiveness against flying beetles, a captive breeding program was created in Australia. That August, 102 cane toads were unleashed in northern Queensland. Their numbers have absolutely skyrocketed since, and an estimated 1.5 billion now inhabit the land down under.
4. FEMALES LAY CLUTCHES OF 8000 TO 30,000 EGGS.
A few days after a female cane toad lays her eggs, they hatch into tadpoles, a chapter in the life cycle that lasts for some four to eight weeks. The little swimmers are prone to cannibalism, and have been known to eat the eggs and tadpoles of other cane toads (they don't eat their own siblings, though). While the young amphibians can make short work of each other, anything else that tries to eat them is in for a bad experience: Both cane toad eggs and tadpoles are poisonous.
5. SOME PEOPLE TRY TO GET HIGH BY LICKING CANE TOADS (IT DOESN’T END WELL).
Don’t ever try this. When threatened, cane toads secrete a dangerous cocktail of chemicals, including one known as 5-methoxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine. People who ingest this material (usually by licking the amphibians) experience strong hallucinations and a full-body rush. Unfortunately, they also put their lives at risk. Side-effects of toad-licking include severely weakened muscles, intense vomiting, seizures, and death by heart stoppage. Please, keep your tongue away from the toads.
6. CANE TOADS WILL EAT DOG FOOD.
These guys aren’t picky eaters, and they are happy to devour any creature that can fit into their mouths. In residential areas, cane toads are often seen climbing into dog food bowls and chowing down on the contents.
7. PRINCE CHARLES ONCE RECEIVED A UNIQUE, CANE TOAD-THEMED WEDDING PRESENT.
Cane toads' hides can be turned into a coarse, poison-free leather. Over the years, purses, keychains, and other novelty items made from this material have become quite popular with tourists in Australia.
The atypical leather has also gotten some royal attention. On July 29, 1981, Prince Charles exchanged vows with one Diana Spencer. To honor this occasion, the Australian Defense Department gave the couple a handsome book bound in the skins of four genuine cane toads [PDF].
8. INVASIVE TOADS ARE GETTING TURNED INTO HUMAN ENTREES.
For reasons previously stated, you’ll want to keep live cane toads as far away from your mouth as possible. That said, if properly prepared, they’re actually edible. In recent years, chefs throughout Queensland and Australia’s Northern Territory have been conjuring up recipes that incorporate cane toad legs. These juicy treats may be sautéed, stir fried, or thrown into a nice salad. “It’s healthy foodstuff,” Philip Hayward, an island studies professor at Southern Cross University, told ABC. “We can severely reduce numbers… and at the same time have a healthy, economically viable product.”
9. THERE’S A CANE TOAD STATUE IN THE TOWN OF SARDINA, AUSTRALIA.
“Buffy,” as residents affectionately call her, commemorates the town’s sugar cane farmers. She began life in 1983 as a papier-mâché ornament on a float in that year’s Apex Sugar Festival. The model was then cast in fiberglass and moved to Broad Street in central Sardinia. This year, Buffy’s due to get a tall new platform that will also include plaques of local rugby stars.
10. CANE TOAD POISON MIGHT HAVE MEDICAL USES.
Researchers at the University of Queensland have been assessing the medical benefits of this notorious toxin since 2010. In the process, they may have found a real boon for Australia’s economy. Experiments have shown that cane toad poison selectively kills cancer cells—while leaving healthy cells intact.
“We could process the [toxin] for medicine, ideally in a tablet because it tastes absolutely awful,” Dr. Harenda Parekh, a senior lecturer at the school of pharmacy, told the Guardian in Australia. Parekh notes that this product would be similar to chan su, a traditional Chinese medicine made with poison from the indigenous Asiatic toad that has been used to treat skin conditions, heart failure, and sore throats. Sadly, over-harvesting and pollution might soon put that particular animal at risk. Should this happen, poison from Australian cane toads may offer a viable alternative on the Chinese market. “The cane toad is a pest here to stay and we are fighting a losing battle against it,” explains Parekh, “but we could turn them into a lucrative export.”