A couple of years ago, in the forests of Connecticut, a team of zoologists were searching for newts. On one particular day, what caught their eye was not a newt, but a toad. A toad without a face. Yep, you read that right, they found a toad without a face. Like a horror remake of The Wind in the Willows.
While the research team were minding their own business, an unusually audacious toad kept hopping into their feet. Peering down at the creature, Jill Fleming, a herpetologist and graduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, realized that while the toad was very much alive, its face was very much missing.
Taking a closer look, the researchers discovered that the toad had no eyes, nose, jaw, or tongue. You might expect to see horrendous wounds where these features once lay, but no. The toad’s face was smooth – well as smooth as bumpy toad skin gets anyway.
Although the toad was spotted back in 2016, Fleming posted a picture of it in February of this year, asking her fellow herpetologists what might have been the cause.
So, what led to this mysterious occurrence?
Well, no one can say for sure, but there are some pretty good guesses. It’s very unlikely that the toad was born with no face due to some kind of genetic mutation, as it would not have survived to adulthood without the ability to navigate, hunt, and feed effectively.
What’s more likely is that its face was injured during its brumation – the reptilian version of hibernation – and then healed before it emerged. Essentially, its face was hacked off and it peacefully slept through the whole event.
One explanation is that during the toad’s state of dormancy, in which it wouldn’t have eaten, drunk, or moved for several weeks, a peckish predator happened upon it and nibbled off its face. We can’t be sure exactly what this creature would have been, but it likely wasn’t a snake or a bird as these tend to swallow things whole. Instead, it was probably some kind of mammal like a mink.
Another explanation, suggested by wildlife veterinarian Lydia Franklinos in response to Fleming’s tweet, was a nasty parasite. As if snakes, birds, and mammals coming after you isn’t enough to deal with, toads can also fall victim to flesh-eating toad fly larvae ( Lucilia bufonivora), as adult flies lay eggs in their eyes and nostrils. The rest of the body remains pretty healthy, but the facial tissues are quickly destroyed by the hungry larvae.
Whatever the culprit, poor Mr Toad. It’s also pretty likely that with no eyes for spotting predators he was snapped up very quickly, or starved to death as he could no longer eat.