Almost like a plague out of the Book of Exodus, a horde of poisonous toads crept out of the water and prowled onto manicured lawns inside a tony suburb of Palm Beach Gardens, clogging pool filters and driving frightened homeowners to reach for their smartphones.
Footage of one woman’s pool brimming with hundreds of freshly hatched cane toads, or bufo toads, grossed out residents and caused pest control company lines to ring off the hook.
Experts say a warm winter — a fraction of the toad’s population usually dies during cold snaps — and a premature breeding season will lead to more sightings of the cane toad across South Florida in the next few months.
“We’re gonna be seeing large amounts being born probably through summer,” said Jeannine Tilford of toad-removal service Toad Busters, adding that her technicians have been called to remove toads from Broward and Miami-Dade counties in recent weeks. “The toads didn’t go dormant and the bugs were still around. All the baby toads that normally would have died ... they’re still alive.”
The online sensation began after Mirabella resident Jennie Quasha shared photos of her toad-infested pool with local media outlets. For nearly a week, the toads have swarmed the streets of the Palm Beach County neighborhood, which is surrounded by man-made lagoons
“We weren’t sure what they were, so we removed them,” she told the Palm Beach Post. “Friday morning, it was like a mass exodus of toads. Baby toads. They’re very small, and all crawling from the lake. At this point, we didn’t know if they were frogs or toads. When I say billions and billions, you can’t even count.”
For native Floridians, the cane toad — also known as the giant or marine bufo toad — is a common sight.
The toads, which were introduced to Florida’s ecosystem decades ago and are native to South America, can be deadly to dogs and small animals who ingest the toad’s milky bufotoxin. The toxin can cause irritation to humans if it makes contact with the eyes. The toads’ origins in Florida can be traced back to a 1955 release of about 100 near the Miami airport by a pet dealer, according to the University of Florida.
Symptoms of cane toad poisoning in animals include excessive drooling, extremely red gums, head-shaking, crying, loss of coordination or convulsions.
If your dog comes into contact with a cane toad, rinse out the dog’s mouth with a damp rag or hose aimed sideways, as not to allow the water to push the toxin further down the dog’s throat. Immediate veterinary attention is advised.
Cane toads generally breed from March to September near bodies of water, according to UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, but they can breed virtually year-round. The eggs are laid in long strings, and females lay between a few thousand to tens of thousands at a time.
Mark Holiday of Toad Busters told WPTV that recent rains, in collaboration with warmer temperatures, may have sparked a breeding cycle. He said more toads were expected to spread across South Florida in the coming weeks, although it isn’t clear if an infestation is ongoing. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Tilford said the breeding season started a few weeks early this year because of the warmer winter. Her company has captured more than 1,000 toads across South Florida this month, as far south as Florida City.
While she said the large sighting of toads in Palm Beach Gardens was not unusual, the fish kill used to treat the man-made lake near the neighborhood ensured a larger fraction of the female toad’s eggs would survive. Once they hatched, the babies were in full force.
“That’s the new thing for these communities,” she said. The lakes are “pretty to live on, but it’s also awesome for the toads.”
Experts recommend homeowners make their yards as inhospitable to these toads as possible, by doing proper pool maintenance, keeping pet food inside when not in use and controlling insect populations, which make up the toads’ diet.
The cane toad’s call is a slow, melodic trill. (You can hear it here.)
“They can leave quite a few eggs,” said Adrian Hunsberger, an urban horticulture agent and entomologist at UF’s IFAS Extension Miami-Dade County. “They’re here year-round. They’ve been here for, what, over 60 years.”
Cane toads are reddish brown to grayish brown, with large triangular glands near their shoulders. Those glands release the toxin. The toads measure between 4 and 6 inches long, and weigh about 1 pound on average. They prey on beetles, roaches, spiders, frogs, small birds and small mammals.
Cane toads are often confused with the native southern toads, which have ridges on their heads and oval glands.
“I think most people who’ve lived here for a while and lived around water bodies sort of know what they look like,” Hunsberger said. “It’s the people who have dogs who need to be really vigilant.”
The humane way to kill a cane toad is to rub or spray benzocaine on its belly, place it in a plastic bag and freeze it for 24-48 hours, but unless you have a dog roaming outside, you may not feel compelled to take such steps.
“It would be best to remove them from the population. But the thing is that there’s so many of them, just killing one or two is really not going to have a big impact on the population,” Hunsberger said. “But if you have a dog and they’re in your yard, then you have to do something about them.”