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Calling Out for the Eastern Spadefoot Toad

By Keith A. Johnson and Thomas K. Pauley

Eastern Spadefoot ToadCommon Name: Eastern Spadefoot Toad  

Scientific Name: Scaphiopus holbrookii

Status:   Eastern spadefoots are abundant in many states throughout its range.      

West Virginia Status: The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources lists the Eastern spadefoot as S1 (1-5 occurrences, extremely rare in the state).

Description: The Eastern spadefoot is a medium-sized toad reaching a snout-to-vent length of 1.75 to 2.5 inches.   Males are normally larger than females but each are plump and short-legged. Spadefoots have relatively smooth skin compared to American and Fowler's toads, which are common throughout the state.  

The Eastern spadefoot has round parotoid glands as opposed to oblong glands on American and Fowler's toads.   Each hind foot of the Eastern spadefoot has a hardened, black, sickle-shaped tubercle or “spade.” This is how the toad gets the name spadefoot.    The color of the toad ranges from brown to black. Some individuals have a pair of distinguishable yellowish stripes running from the back of the eyes to the lower back.

Range: Eastern spadefoots occur from eastern Massachusetts and northern New York, southward through Florida and westward to eastern Louisiana, southeastern Missouri and southwestern Illinois.

In West Virginia, historical records indicate populations along the Kanawha and Ohio River valleys as well as populations in Shoals, Wayne County and in Wardensville, Hardy County.

Habitat : Eastern spadefoots live in areas with loose soils. These areas are normally located along the floodplains of large river systems such as the Kanawha and Ohio rivers. Eastern spadefoots may also be found in forested areas, which contain loose soils.

Diet: Eastern spadefoots are opportunistic feeders.   They forage on a number of small invertebrates including beetles, wasps, grasshoppers and spiders.

Natural History: Spadefoots are secretive. Most of their life is spent underground. They are able to burrow in loose soils to an average depth of 2 to 12 inches by using the sickle-shaped tubercle on each hind foot. Some records have shown them at depths of 3 feet.   Burrows range from 0.75-1.25 inches in diameter but are usually filled with loose soil as the toads descend.

Spadefoots are nocturnal and normally emerge from their burrows at night after rains when air temperature is a minimum of 50°.   They are most active during the first few hours of darkness.   This time is spent foraging for small insects and spiders.   They are explosive breeders.   Breeding is brief, taking place in 1 to 2 nights once, twice or not at all in a given year.   Breeding is triggered by environmental conditions and may take place anytime from March-October when air temperature is above 50° and strong storms produce 2 inches of rain in a 24-hour period.   Eastern spadefoots breed in temporary pools caused by these heavy rains.  

The call of the Eastern spadefoot has been described as that of a sick sheep or someone vomiting. You can listen to the call at the following web address: http://wwknapp.

home. spadefoot.toad.html.   Females lay up to 3,000 eggs in string or band formations.   Eggs hatch in about a week depending on environmental conditions.   Larval period ranges from 2 to 9 weeks and is also dependent on environmental conditions.                

Threats:   Until this past spring, Eastern spadefoots had not been seen in the state for 30 years.   Most historical sites have been destroyed or altered by commercial or urban development.   Such specific habitat requirement makes Eastern spadefoots vulnerable to extirpation or population destruction.

  As of now there are only two known breeding sites in the state.   The size and stability of these populations are unknown.   Strong efforts are being made this year to find new populations or to rediscover old ones.  

What you can do to help: If you see a toad that matches this description, please do not collect or disturb it.   The best place for wild animals is in their natural habitat.   Quality photos work well for identification purposes.   Record its location by distance from nearest town or permanent landmark.   GPS coordinates are very helpful in relocating possible sites.   If you have seen these toads or know where populations or breeding sites are located, please contact Keith A. Johnson or Dr. Thomas K. Pauley at Marshall University. (See box below)

Keith Johnson is a graduate assistant and Dr. Pauley is considered the state's foremost herpetologists. Both are from Marshall University.