“Before the swallow, before the daffodil, and not much later than the snowdrop, the common toad salutes the coming of spring after his own fashion, which is to emerge from a hole in the ground, where he has lain buried since the previous autumn, and crawl as rapidly as possible towards the nearest suitable patch of water. Something — some kind of shudder in the earth, or perhaps merely a rise of a few degrees in the temperature — has told him that it is time to wake up.” George Orwell, Some Thoughts on the Common Toad
Let us celebrate the Yosemite toad, for his sonorous musical trilling that matches any birdsong in spring, for being an intrepid amphibian who survives in the alpine meadows of the Sierra Nevada and, as George Orwell observed in his eulogy of spring, “because the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from poets.”
Californians should take pride in the Yosemite toad—it’s a native son found nowhere else on earth except the high elevations of the Sierra. Mountain life isn’t an easy existence for amphibians, and the toad spends half the year in hibernation. Once the snow melts—or even before as the critter has been observed tip-toeing over snowfields to reach their breeding grounds—the males emerge from hibernation and find a suitable pool to begin their annual search for a mate.
The toads distinctive “love song” can be heard up to 100 yards away, and as the naturalists Grinnell and Storer noted in 1924, “its mellow notes are pleasing additions to the chorus of bird songs just after the snow leaves.” The toad definitely lives up to its Latin namesake, Bufo canorus, which translates into “tuneful toad.” The males urgently serenade throughout the day as competition for a mate is fierce—males may outnumber females at some breeding ponds by 10:1.
Last week, I wandered in the Gaylor Lake basin of Yosemite and encountered this delightful rite of spring, as my ears caught the unmistakable sound of toad music resonating in the alpine basin (see video below). It rose above the boisterous shouting of the Clark’s nutcracker, and could not even be diminished by the frequent noise of an airplane overhead. The Pacific chorus frog occasionally produced its loud “kreek-eeck” in challenge, but in this American Idol of the animal world, the day clearly belonged to the voice of the Yosemite toad.
After some patient waiting, I finally viewed the source of the trilling and hit the toad jackpot so to speak. Two pairs of toads in amplexus paddled by the rock I had perched on and I had an amazing (yet from the toad’s perspective perhaps a voyeuristic) view of their mating ritual. The smaller male toad, usually olive green in color, clasps onto the larger female and rides her in a watery rodeo-like game until she finds a location to deposit her eggs. When the tadpoles emerge about 12 days later the almost uniformly black color makes them easy to spot. One year, I observed Yosemite toad tadpoles while hiking up to the Dana Plateau—they appeared a bit spooky in appearance with just the two eyes penetrating the forceful black.
Sadly, visitors to Yosemite and the Sierra rarely encounter the spooky black tadpoles swimming in an alpine pool or hear the toad’s annual love song. Once in abundance, the amphibian pride of the Sierra is disappearing from its home. Overall, the toad populations have vanished from 50% of its historic range. In the Tioga Pass area the declines have been much more significant with reductions of up to 90% from 1971 to 1993.
What’s causing it? Decreasing snow pack and drought conditions from climate change, and increased predation are two possible causes. For example, when the snowpack decreases (and some predictions call for up to a 90% reduction in the California future from climate change) breeding pools dry up before tadpoles can metamorphosize into adults. I’ll be watching these toads closely this year as we’ve experienced one of the driest winters on record in the Sierra. I’ve been visiting Gaylor Lakes in the spring for almost twenty years and was a bit startled over how parched the landscaped appeared in May.
For this year at least, and for years into the future, we’ll hope the love song of the Yosemite toad wasn’t in vain and those eggs will transform into more of this remarkable creature. For to silence their high-pitched trilling is to silence a rite of spring that is inextricably linked to the Sierra landscape—how can we let this happen on our watch?
Spring—in the Sierra or anywhere—is robust melody, a chorus full of equally important voices and to diminish even one singer is to diminish the entire song. Ensuring the future of the Yosemite toad makes for a better future for us as well. Let me quote Orwell’s eulogy once again, “I think that by retaining one's childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and — to return to my first instance — toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable.”