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Eastern spadefoot toad

Eastern Spadefoot Toads

Building new Breeding Pools for Eastern Spadefoot Toads

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Vernal pool at Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary

Since 2009, we've partnered with Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary to help restore the eastern spadefoot toad to areas of its former range. One site where spadefoots had been observed into the 1990’s, but not since, was Mass Audubon’s Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Under the leadership of sanctuary director Ian Ives, and with the help of noted wetland restoration expert Thomas Biebighauser, we've assisted in the design and creation of 13 new, small vernal pools at Ashumet Holly and Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuaries.

Since 2013, we've helped to headstart eastern spadefoot toads, taken as eggs from a large population in Barnstable, Massachusetts, and then released several thousand in suitable habitat near the newly created pools at Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary. To date, we've helped reintroduce more than 8,000 juvenile eastern spadefoot toads to Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary.

As with marbled salamanders, it's impossible to track the tiny headstarted toads after we release them. As most toads take at least five years to mature to adulthood, we need to simply wait and hope that they've been thriving at Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary since our first release in 2011. This past year, however, we've started to see the fruits of our work. Groups from Mass Audubon and Zoo New England’s Grassroots Wildlife Conservation caught more than 25 juvenile and young adult eastern spadefoot toads there this spring and autumn.

Easternspadefoottoad BoxIn addition to Cape Cod, we've also worked with project partners to reintroduce eastern spadefoot toads elsewhere in Massachusetts. In 2017, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife released the first cohort of spadefoot toads at a large wildlife management area in Southwick near vernal pools created the year before.

In Lincoln, Massachusetts, we're partnered with Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary to reintroduce eastern spadefoot toads to a second Middlesex County site. We helped Mass Audubon design and build a small vernal pool breeding site and are working with them to further enhance the habitat at Drumlin Farm for spadefoot toads.

We've also partnered with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to survey the Assabet River National Wildlife Sanctuary for spadefoot toads. Given the large area of suitable habitat at Assabet River, this site could be an ideal spot for another significant restoration effort.

About the Eastern Spadefoot Toad

Easternspadefoottoad2 BoxThe eastern spadefoot toad (Scaphiopus holbrookii) is an odd descendant of desert-dwellers marooned in wet and cold New England. Our spadefoot toads reach the northern limits of their range in Massachusetts and New York states. None have been documented in New Hampshire. Eastern spadefoot toads are the rarest frog species in Massachusetts and, with the exception of Vermont’s boreal chorus frog, the rarest frog in New England overall. They're rare in all the northeastern states in which they occur. In Massachusetts, spadefoot toads, a threatened species, are primarily found on the outer parts of Cape Cod, with other significant but local populations in southeastern Massachusetts, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and Plum Island. A few small populations persist in the Connecticut River Valley and one tiny known population remains in Middlesex County.

Eastern spadefoot toads spend the bulk of their lives underground in dry, sandy soils. They breed sporadically and unpredictably, usually in the spring months but occasionally throughout the summer and always in response to heavy rains. Males call from suitable vernal pool habitat with a whining “bleat” during the short, unpredictable breeding season. Females lay gelatinous egg masses, which hatch in several days into tadpoles that develop a characteristic pattern of gold flecking. Since eastern spadefoot toads typically select relatively small, shallow, and very ephemeral vernal pools as their breeding sites, many large groups of tadpoles perish if a dry spell causes their breeding pools to vanish before the tadpoles can metamorphose. As juveniles and adults, eastern spadefoot toads are nocturnal and come out of their burrows to feed on ants and other invertebrates during warm, often moist nights. They have large “cat-like” eyes and their hind feed each possess a small specially adapted “claw” or “spade,” which allows them to burrow into the sand in a surprisingly short time.

Eastern spadefoot toads are very hard to find, even with the benefit of modern equipment. We therefore know little about their past distribution in our area. However, museum specimens and descriptions demonstrate that they were once considerably more widespread in northeastern Massachusetts, including historical reports from Cambridge, Concord, and several towns in Essex County.

Eastern Spadefoot Toad Fact Sheet

The Threat

Easternspadefoottoad1 BoxLikely, a primary cause of the decline of eastern spadefoot toads throughout their range has been the filling and draining of the small, ephemeral vernal pools that spadefoot toads depend upon as breeding habitat. Since they inhabit dry, sandy portions of the coastal plain in the northeastern United States, much of their habitat has been destroyed through centuries of urbanization and agriculture. Pesticides and pollutants may be a threat to eggs and tadpoles, and some Massachusetts adults have tested positive for a skin fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, that has caused frog declines and extinctions in several areas of the world. Locally, however, it's unlikely that this disease is a major current threat to New Englands’s remaining spadefoot toad populations.

Climate change, on the other hand, could further endanger our rarest frog. Long spring dry spells, such as those which occurred in 2015 and especially 2016, may prohibit spadefoot toad populations from breeding, sometimes for years at a time. Droughts that occur after breeding events can doom all the tadpoles in a population to death by desiccation. Additionally, rising sea levels may threaten some of our most robust spadefoot toad populations which occur on barrier beaches.

Help us Conserve Eastern Spadefoot Toads: In the classroom and the field

Because eastern spadefoot toads breed sporadically, eggs and tadpoles aren't always available for headstarting, as part of reintroduction programs in Massachusetts. Since 2011, when spadefoot toad tadpoles have been available, Zoo New England’s Grassroots Wildlife Conservation and Mass Audubon have worked with more than 20 schools to raise the tadpoles, over the course of about one month, until they metamorphose into toadlets and are released into their reintroduction sites. When eastern spadefoot toad tadpoles aren't available, we work with interested school groups to responsibly raise and release locally sourced wood frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus), a relatively common and widespread vernal pool-breeding frog.

In the Field:

If you're interested in working with us in the field, please contact Zoo New England’s Grassroots Wildlife Conservation directly.

We're in particular need for people willing to conduct nighttime surveys for eastern spadefoot toads, especially during the late summer and early autumn months. Training can be provided.

In the Classroom:

At each participating school, our biologist-educators provide high quality classroom presentations and field trips built around the students’ participation in the eastern spadefoot toad or wood frog headstarting program. Together, we learn about wildlife conservation, vernal pool ecology, and landscape history, focusing on inquiry-based skills at the center of the Next Generation Science Standards. All of our instructors have extensive experience working as field biologists with vernal pool ecology and spadefoot toads, as well as experience at leading educational enrichment programs for students from elementary grades through high school.

If you're interested in possibly caring for native tadpoles, whether wood frog or eastern spadefoot toads, in your classroom, please fill out our information request form below. 

Frog/Toad Classroom Information Request Form