Disappearing Act

I was driving out to the Platte River Prairies last week when Cody (our Preserve Manager) called. Emma had been doing some mowing and Cody had seen what looked like a toad hopping away from the mower. Being the kind person (and good biologist) he is, he flagged Emma down and grabbed the toad before it got chopped up.

To his surprise, it wasn’t a Woodhouse’s toad, which is what we almost always see. Instead, it was a plains spadefoot, which isn’t actually a true toad (its non-warty skin and other features align it more with frogs than toads). Cody was calling to let me know he was going to hold on to it until I arrived.

A plains spadefoot (Spea bombifrons).

I’ve worked along the Platte River for more than 25 years and this is the first spadefoot I’ve ever seen here (I’ve seen one at the Niobrara Valley Preserve). I guess that’s not surprising since they spend most of their lives underground. If you’re not familiar with the habits of spadefoots (spadefeet?), they’re usually only seen aboveground during or after rainstorms. They emerge from the ground to quickly mate and lay eggs in puddles. Their tadpoles can turn into little froglets within a couple weeks, which sometimes is faster than the puddles disappear.

Once they’re finished with their reproductive activities, spadefoots dig themselves back underground. They have special projections on their rear feet (for which they’re named) that aid in that excavation work. I’d heard they were pretty good diggers, but I’d never seen them in action. Until last week.

When I arrived, Cody handed me the spadefoot and then watched while I put it on the ground and tried photograph it. For the first several minutes, Cody had a front row seat to a sketch comedy show as the little critter repeatedly hopped away from me just as I got it in focus. I was lying on my belly to get the angle I wanted, so I ended up sliding around in the recently-mowed grass after the frog – wary of the little cacti (Opuntia fragilis) that I knew were in the area. I eventually managed a couple reasonable shots, including the one above, but wanted a few more since I figured it might be a while before I got another opportunity.

As the spadefoot hopped away from the camera yet again, I finally grabbed it and set it down on a pocket gopher mound Emma’s mower had flattened. This time, instead of hopping away, the little frog immediately started shuffling its rear feet in the loose soil. As I took advantage of its stationary position to photograph it, it continued moving its legs and Cody and I quickly realized it was starting to sink.

The spadefoot started wriggling its rear legs in the loose sand…
… and started lowering itself into the earth.

As it conducted the subtle excavation with its rear legs, it slowly rotated and began sinking lower and lower into the loose sandy soil. It was hard to understand exactly how it was happening, but it was a smooth and efficient process.

Getting lower…
…and lower…
…until it finally disappeared altogether.

Later, Cody and I compared our memories and agreed it had taken about a minute and a half to disappear. Based on the time stamps from my photos, it was probably more like three minutes, but even so, it was impressively fast. I don’t know how long it would take me to completely bury myself in sandy soil – even with a shovel – but I bet it would be hours, not minutes. After it was gone, I toyed with the idea of digging it back up and trying to get video of it repeating the process but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Here’s the only evidence the spadefoot had been there.

As Cody and marveled in the experience, we also wondered what the little spadefoot was doing aboveground. It hadn’t rained for a few days, so it seemed weird for it not to be belowground. Our best hypothesis was that it had been buried in a pocket gopher mound and that Emma’s mower had knocked the top off of the mound and either exposed the toad or made it feel like it needed to change locations. Whatever the reason for its appearance, we were sure grateful for it!

Don’t forget to sign up for one of our two events coming up next month! Our public field day on July 9 will be a great way to see the Platte River Prairies and learn about plants, birds, wetlands, small mammals, insects, and much more. Our two day workshop on Conserving Fragmented Prairies (hosted in conjunction with Prairie Plains Resource Institute) will be a terrific opportunity to explore prairie stewardship strategies with other land managers. Read more about both events here.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

10 thoughts on “Disappearing Act

  1. So very cool! I have not seen a Spadefoot Toad either but have read much about them and a board member studied them & other amphibians for years. Great opportunity for you to capture the toad doing what it does!

  2. Thanks, Chris, for adding spadefeet :) to my day. And for the wonderful reminder that, in nature, as in the rest of life, sometimes the best way to love is to let something go, so it can go on to be its best self…..

  3. For several years I lived in the Pumpkin Creek drainage of Banner County in western Nebraska. I went out one night and couldn’t believe my ears…it sounded as if I had been transported from the prairie to a vibrant marsh. It had rained the day before, and what sounded like thousands of spadefoots had emerged and erupted into song. Now I had an additional reason to look forward to the next rain :)

  4. As our summer vacation approaches these missives on the prairie of yours so stoke excitement to get out to the Niobrara! I’ve been wanting to get out there for 20 years since reading the Road Home- It all sounded so alive and rich and diverse, similar to a CSU professor’s 250+ ecological restoration project/farm I lived on post undergrad. Dr. Wallace and wife Nancy opened my eyes to the minuscule wonders, interconnected, I hadn’t appreciated prior to. Your blog is manna and I live the morsels you share! Thanks!!


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