Is a toad a frog, or a frog a toad?

by Conrad J. Storad
photos by Meghan Nichols and Laurie Storad

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Young children are naturalists without the formal training. The environment outside provides laboratories of many kinds. Learning can take place at the pond across the street or in the woods around the block. Advanced study is always ready and waiting at a vacation beach with family, or near a summer camp lake with friends and classmates.

Kids are notoriously curious. They ask endless questions and perform primitive experiments just to find out how and why things are the way they are. Do you remember the many questions you had growing up in your world of outdoor play? Hopefully, you enjoyed playing outside and weren’t afraid to get your hands and clothes dirty.

I did, and I wasn’t. And I do remember a few outdoor explorations and questions from those early days with friends, brothers, and a sister. How deep a hole can we dig on this beach before it fills with water?

What kind of creatures do you think live under this rotten log? Will that bug bite or sting me if I grab it?

What does that toad’s skin feel like? How far can I see from the top of this tree? How long will it take for this tadpole to grow legs?

Luckily, I’m getting lots of chances to relive my early days of exploration through the eyes of my grandchildren. My granddaughter Hadley, a kindergartner-to-be, is way ahead of her older brothers when it comes to curiosity about Nature’s little secrets. She routinely peppers me with questions. For her, I’m a walking, talking “Google search.”

She nailed me with a good one during the annual Memorial Day fishing derby at our neighborhood pond. The day was beautiful, but the bluegill and bass were not cooperating. Patience is not the strongest trait for preschoolers or kids of elementary school age. The cane poles and bobbers were quickly left on the grassy banks. Of much greater interest were the swarms of tadpoles in the green algae near the pond’s mucky edge.

Some of the kids already knew that tadpoles were young “frogs-to-be.” Others even knew that they were a stage beyond eggs. Hadley took it a step further with her question. But first, some background for context.

A week earlier, Hadley had caught a toad at her babysitter’s home. Of course, the toad had to go home with her. Toads make great pets with the proper habitat and care. A large glass jar and an occasional worm does NOT meet the criteria. With some prodding, Hadley’s mom was able to convince her that the toad was better off with its “family.” She reluctantly returned it to the spot where it was found. Days later, her aunt bought her a small frog to keep as a pet. Again, frogs make great pets with the proper habitat and care… But, back to the pond story.

Hadley’s bucket was filled with tadpoles. Her hands covered with gunk, she looked at me and asked, “Toppy (my grandpa name), is a frog a toad? She paused, then added, “Or is a toad a frog?”

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Do you know? Turns out, this question does not have an easy answer. For the people who study them, there is no real scientific difference between frogs and toads. However, there are lots and lots of physical differences between the more than 7,000 known species of frogs and toads living on Earth today. So the complete answer is a bit more complicated.

Scientists classify animals based on lots of different characteristics. For example, frogs and toads belong to the same big animal group. Both are amphibians. These are cold-blooded creatures that spend the early part of their lives in water. In the water, they breathe with gills, like fish. When older, amphibians will live on land, but often stay close to water. They breathe air through lungs, like us.

Most frogs and toads look and act quite differently. But don’t be too quick. Some look very similar. It can get confusing. Following are some of the most common ways to tell them apart.

Frogs:

Must live near water to survive.

Have smooth, moist skin. They appear slimy.

Have a long, narrow body with bulging eyes.

Have long, strong hind legs that help them jump high and far.

Are food for many predators.

Toads:

Live on land, but often near water.

Have rough, dry, bumpy skin.

Have short back legs. They take small hops instead of long jumps.

Don’t have many predators. Glands behind a toad’s eyes produce toxins that give a bitter taste and smell. The toxins burn the eyes and nose of predators.

The list goes on and on. Both female toads and frogs lay their eggs in water. But a frog lays eggs in a cluster or clump under the surface of the water. A toad will lay its eggs in a long chain. Some toads don’t lay eggs at all. They give birth to live young.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of a frog or toad’s body is its tongue. Both have long, sticky tongues that shoot out of their mouths like a New Year’s Eve party favor. A frog tends to have a longer tongue.

Frogs and toads use their tongues to capture insects, spiders, minnows, and other small prey. A toad has a shorter tongue. It needs to be closer to its prey. Toads rarely miss a six or eight-legged meal.

There are other differences as well. But what about this one: Is a tortoise a turtle…or is a turtle a tortoise? Hadley will have to wait. That’s a question for another day and column.


Some hoppin’ fun facts:

  • Toads have rough, bumpy skin. But those bumps are not warts. They are actually special camouflage that helps them blend into their habitat.

  • Frogs or toads live on every continent except Antarctica.

  • A baby toad is called a tadpole, or toadlet.

  • World Frog Day occurs in March each year. Save the Frogs Day is the first Saturday of April each year. National Frog Jumping Day is in May. And the Gary Diamond National Admire a Frog or Toad Day occurs on July 1st.

 

Resources to learn more:

Books:

From Tadpole to Frog by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld

National Geographic Readers: Frogs! by Elizabeth Carney

Frogs and Toads Discovery (Discovery Book for Kids) by Kate Cruso

 

Websites:

Lang Elliott Music of Nature
musicofnature.com/calls-of-frogs-and-toads-of-the-northeast/

All About Frogs.org
llaboutfrogs.org/froglnd.shtml

Easy Science for Kids – Frogs and Toads
asyscienceforkids.com/all-about-frogs-and-toads/

 


The award-winning author and editor of more than 50 science and nature books for children and young adults, Conrad J. Storad expertly draws young readers into his imaginative and entertaining “classroom” to help them better understand and appreciate the natural world.

 

Conrad’s Classroom: Fear the Roo

by Conrad J. Storad

What the heck is a Zip? If, like me, you are a graduate of The University of Akron, you already know the answer. I worked five seasons as a student equipment manager for the U of A football team during the late 1970s. That job helped me earn a degree without accruing any student loan debt. Nada. Zero. Zip. But what is a Zip?

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We heard that question from the fans at every college stadium we played in across the country. The answer was obvious once you saw Zippy, our school mascot. A Zip is a kangaroo—an Akron, Ohio variety. For a time, the school’s modern rally phrase was “Fear the Roo.” Huh? A kangaroo mascot? To get some history, go to Zippy’s web site at: uakron.edu/zippy.

Once you learn more about kangaroos, you’ll understand why the creature is a wonderful mascot for a sports team. Kangaroos are strong, agile, and fast. They have keen vision and a superb sense of hearing. Any athlete in search of glory in his or her sport of choice would love to embody the traits of this amazing creature from the down under continent of Australia.

Fully grown red kangaroos use their powerful hind legs to move at speeds of more than 35 miles per hour. They bound in leaps almost 6 feet high that measure up to 25 feet long per hop. In comparison, big jackrabbits in Arizona can jump 5 to 10 feet per hop. How far can you jump in a single hop?

Most young readers probably already know that kangaroos are different in many ways. Kangaroos are marsupial mammals. Humans and tigers and monkeys and elephants and horses and bats are placental mammals. Like all mammals, marsupials are hairy and warm blooded. The mothers produce milk for their young. But marsupials have an outside pouch where their young grow and develop.

A baby kangaroo is called a Joey. The Joey is hairless and only the size of a Lima bean when it is born. The tiny Joey actually must climb from the birth canal into its mother’s pouch. During six months in the mother’s pouch, the Joey will grow 2,000 times bigger than its size at birth.

More than 60 kinds of kangaroos live on Earth today. The musky rat kangaroo is the smallest. A full grown adult weighs less than a pound. Big red roos can weigh up to 175 pounds. Powerful hind legs give the kangaroo its hopping power. But how many legs does a kangaroo have? You say four, of course. Nope. Not according to a 2015 research study published in Biology Letters.

The correct answer is five legs, say scientists from Australia’s University of New South Wales. A walking kangaroo actually propels itself with its muscular tail. The tail acts like a fifth leg. The scientists learned that the tail of a walking kangaroo works as hard as our legs work when we walk down the street. No other animal is known to use its tail in this way.


More hopping fun facts:

A group of kangaroos is called a mob.
A Wallaby is a kangaroo that weighs less than 45 pounds.
A kangaroo has a head like a deer, can stand upright, and can swim.
Kangaroos are browsers. They eat a variety of leaves and vegetation.

Resources to learn more:

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Books:

Big Red Kangaroo by Claire Saxby
Kangaroo to the Rescue (National Geographic Kids) by Moira Rose Donahue
Kangaroos: The Symbol of Australia by M. Martin

Websites:

National Geographic Kids—Kangaroo

Kangaroo Facts and Photos—Bush Heritage—Australia

Basic Facts about Kangaroos—Defenders of Wildlife

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The award-winning author and editor of more than 50 science and nature books for children and young adults, Conrad J. Storad expertly draws young readers into his imaginative and entertaining “classroom” to help them better understand and appreciate the natural world.



In the Garden: Scarecrows

by Rita Campbell

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I could while away the hours
Conferring with the flowers
Consulting with the rain
And my head I'll be scratching
While my thoughts were busy hatching
If I only had a brain...

- Ray Bolger, The Wizard of Oz

Scarecrows throughout time have taught us lessons on thinking before you speak, generosity, loneliness, and feelings. They have been written about in songs, plays, and children’s books. Throughout history, scarecrows have been used to help farmers save their crops. The Egyptians used the first scarecrows along the Nile River to protect wheat crops from flocks of quail. Wooden scarecrows were used by Greek farmers in 2,500 B.C. These wooden scarecrows were painted purple and had a club in one hand to scare the birds from the vineyards and a sickle in the other to ensure a good harvest. Romans copied the Greek and Japanese farmers created scarecrows to protect their rice fields. In Germany, scarecrows were wooden-shaped witches while in Britain, young boys and girls were used as live scarecrows.

In the United States, immigrant German farmers created “bogeymen” or human-looking scarecrows dressed in old clothes with large, red handkerchiefs around their necks. From these, the straw-filled, human-like men with gourd faces developed. Many other types were used by Native American Indians and Pilgrims to protect their crops. Today, technological scarecrows have reflective film ribbons tied on plants to glimmer in the sunlight. We actually have some motion-powered recorded devices set in our garden to steer away deer.

Scarecrows have evolved over the years and many gardens have scarecrow festivals with competitions for creating the most original scarecrows. These scarecrows can be very creative from childlike scarecrows to adults ones. In the fall, scarecrows can also make fun decorations for your porch or Halloween.

Making a scarecrow to me is akin to creating a snowman and there are so many ways you can attempt this. At the end of the summer, you can decorate your sunflowers with hats, sunglasses, scarves, and old eye-glasses. Paper plate scarecrows are fun to make too. Using buttons for eyes, felt or construction paper for hats, yarn for hair, old shirts and pants stuffed with straw and old boots can be a fun activity to introduce a preschooler or elementary student to scarecrows.

For a garden scarecrow, you will need to create a T-shaped frame for his body and arms. You can drive a fencepost into the ground in the garden where you want to position your scarecrow. Fasten the frame to this post with wire or plastic fasteners. His/her head will need to sit on the top of this frame. An old pillow case stuffed or an old flower pot or lampshade will make a cute head.

Now you need to dress your scarecrow. Use an old shirt and pants or dress. The clothing will need to be stuffed with straw, old rags, leaves or newspaper and tied off with string. Using garbage bags to hold and shape your stuffing material is helpful and the plastic will keep it dry and from falling apart. Use safety pins, hot glue or yarn stitches to hold everything together. Adding gloves, shoes, hats, and scarves just add to the human qualities. Make your scarecrow part of the family.

Birds, rabbits and deer are adaptable. They will stay away from anything that looks suspicious. However, if it stays put for a while, they will get use to it and eventually will think it is there for them as a perch. A scarecrow that stays still in a garden will only be effective for a few days. It is important to make it as life like as you can and moving it around will help to fool the animals. He should be positioned everywhere in the garden meaning that you move him often. Make him lifelike by giving him a job with some tools or sitting on a fence. Simply changing his hat might be a way to fool the birds into thinking he is real.

While scarecrows are helpful in the garden to scare animals and birds away, there have been many stories written about them that can also teach your children about feelings. There is a beautiful story about a scarecrow who longs for the company of the creatures he scares away and in the winter he becomes a snowman that the animals play with. Once again working in the garden can also present many beautiful learning opportunities.

 Bloom Sunflower Flower Yellow Flower Yellow Nature

Plant of the Month: Sunflowers

Sunflowers come in a wide assortment of sizes. Some cultivars grow as tall as 15 feet with flower heads as wide as 1 foot across; dwarf types, however, measure only a foot or two tall. There are also early, medium-height sunflowers that stand 5 to 8 feet tall with heads 8 to 10 inches across. Some cultivars produce a single large flower; others form several heads. Choose a site in full sun on the north side of the garden so the tall plants won't shade your other vegetables once they're grown. The seeds feed countless people, animals, and birds. Sunflower oil is used in cooking, soaps, and cosmetics. In the garden, you can grow sunflowers not only as beautiful aesthetic additions, but as windbreaks, privacy screens, or living supports for pole beans.

Rita Campbell is a master gardener. The Moonbeam-Award winning author has combined her love of gardening and teaching to create an educational series of books for children ... with a touch of magic. For more information, visit spritealights.com.