Spadefoot Toad Conservation Project

Eastern Spadefoot Toad on a fingertip
Eastern Spadefoot Toad

The Eastern Spadefoot Toad was once widespread in coastal parts of Massachusetts. But nowadays it’s rarely seen. Long Pasture is working with partners to establish a viable population of spadefoots at Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary. 

What’s a Spadefoot Toad?

Spadefoot toad

The eastern spadefoot toad can grow to a length of 3 inches, and varies in color from yellow to brown. Massachusetts is at the northern end of its range; it occurs as far south as Florida, and as far west as Missouri.

The spadefoot spends most of its life hidden underground except to breed and forage at night. It emerges to breed in vernal pools following heavy rains in spring and summer. Vernal pools are small isolated water bodies that hold water only periodically. Spadefoots prefer the shallowest of pools, between 4” and 12” deep, with few predators and competitors. In order to succeed in these highly restrictive habitats, spadefoots have adapted a very flexible and opportunistic lifestyle. 

The spadefoot’s habitat has suffered heavily from development. People have drained wetlands for farmland and urban development, drawn down water tables that support their vernal pool habitats and have built roads that make for hazardous travel from uplands to breeding pools. As a result, the once-widespread spadefoot is now listed as threatened under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act.

How can you recognize a spadefoot?

This species’ unique features include:

  • A dark projection on its hind foot, used for digging (the “spade”)
  • Yellow eyes with vertical pupils
  • A vase-like pattern on its back
  • Relatively smooth skin with tiny warts
  • A sheep-like “baaaa” call

Reintroduction Process

spadefoot toad in wetland

Ian Ives and his colleagues, including Tom Biebighauser of Wetland Restoration and Training LLC,  Bryan Windmiller, Director of Conservation Programs  at Zoo New England, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Wildlife Program and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife have restored over 20 new breeding pools in fields as well as woodland and formerly cultivated land across the state.

Sites include Long Pasture and Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuaries on Cape Cod, the Breivogel Ponds Conservation Area in Falmouth, and the Southwick Wildlife Management Area in Southwick.

They have also moved thousands of young toads to Ashumet Holly from Sandy Neck Barrier Beach in Barnstable. This translocation project is a first for the species and only the third vertebrate species translocation that Mass Fish and Wildlife has permitted within Massachusetts.

Before the toads set foot in their new homes, they are raised and cared for by students in local classrooms. Between 2011 and 2018, 850 students from 26 schools participated in head starting. This unique citizen science project gives the toads an important head start. The students nurture the spadefoots until they metamorphose from tadpoles to toads, at which point they’re released.

Students are also utilized in the ongoing monitoring. They help Mass Audubon scientists track the success of the translocations, census the colonization rates of other vernal pool species and measure a suite of physical characteristics in the newly created wetlands.

Added Benefits

Along with the endangered species conservation outcomes, our wetland restoration work is promoting species biodiversity, enhancing water quality and offering an aesthetically pleasing aquatic feature to our wildlife sanctuaries. We are actively promoting the benefits of our wetland restoration techniques to land protection organizations, land managers and owners, educators and wetland professionals. 

Come visit our beautiful newly created vernal pools at these Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries:

How You Can Help Spadefoot Toads

Here are some ways that you can learn more and help preserve the spadefoot for generations to come:

For more information or to get involved, contact us.