Exploding toads and other matters
    By Robert H Olley | January 5th 2012 01:32 PM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Until recently, I worked in the Polymer Physics Group of the Physics Department at the University of Reading.

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    For the last two days we have had our BBC television naturalist Chris Packham presenting us with “Nature’s Weirdest Events”. Here are my three favourites from this session.

    Exploding toads

    In April 2005, around the mating time for toads, a thousand or more of these amphibians (Bufo bufo) were found in an exploded condition in the vicinity of a pond in Hamburg, which rapidly became known locally as “the Pond of Death”. Hamburgers were worried – was it something in the water? Was this due to pesticides, or more likely a viral or bacterial disease, maybe carried by racehorses nearby, which had recently been imported from the Americas? (And we know that amphibians worldwide are under stress.)

    Then on the 28th April, der Spegiel announced Hamburg Lake – Puzzle of the Exploding Toads solved, and ten days later Stone the crows! Exploding toad case solved, announced the Independent.

    The local crows had learned to peck a hole in the toad’s poisonous skin, and eat out only the liver, which to them is a particular delicacy – foie gras de crapaud. When attacked, a toad will inflate itself to look bigger. The toad has no diaphragm, and so, with a hole in the body wall, the lungs will keep on expanding, turning the unfortunate creature into a living grenade.

    Blackbirds of Beebe

    On New Year’s Eve in the town of Beebe, Arkansas, more than 3,000 red-winged blackbirds but also some European starlings were found littering the ground just before midnight. Both these birds congregate in large flocks, and are not very popular around Beebe, where they make a lot of noise and mess.
    Examination of the dead birds showed that they had a lot of trauma, probably as a result of collision. But with what?– some people suggested UFOs. Something had set them flying around after dark, and since their eyes are full of cone cells, but (I speculate) hardly contain any rods such as we humans use at night, they were literally flying around in the dark, and bumping into each other, or trees, or buildings.

    The same has been repeated on a smaller scale this recent New Year’s Eve, and according to the news report, Blackbird killings in Arkansas believed intentional.

    2010 Locust plague in Australia.

    Australia experiences some remarkable events, as in late September 2009 when dust from the centre of the continent turned the sky over Sydney red, so that the whole city appeared as if under red lighting for old-fashioned photographic processing. (See BBC report Desert dust storm chokes Sydney).

    House Mouse plagues are also frequent, as this creature was introduced by European settlers and has few natural predators. Although familiar in Europe from stories such as The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter, they are not nearly so prolific over here.

    However, locusts are something much more problematic. Regular readers of Science 2.0 know about this from Every Australian Farmer's Nightmare - The Locusts Are Coming and Australia’s 4 billion dollar bee industry at imminent risk from locust spraying by our resident Australian beekeeper.

    But what makes locusts swarm? When few numbers, they tend to keep apart. However, in a paper in the 30 January 2009 edition of Science, Anstey&Rogers et al. showed that when desert locusts meet up, their nervous systems release serotonin, which causes them to become mutually attracted, a prerequisite for swarming. (note: The Key to Pandora's Box).

    That gets them together, but then with so much competition for food, they get hungry, especially for protein, of which the nearest source is the next locust. So, in an eat-or-be-eaten scenario, the only option is to keep moving, and then the journey starts.

    Without going to deeply into Behaviourism, one can still see strong poetic imagery for some historical human migrations.


    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Interesting article Robert, thanks for the links. Maybe that's what the Beatles were singling about in their song 'blackbird' back in 1968? If only they had mentioned Beebe or Arkansas we could maybe call them 'psi'chics.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    Fossil Huntress
    I love this post Robert. You had me at exploding toads!
    Fascinating and humerous at the same time,a very good blog and layman friendly,wish all could communicate science in such a way,specially climate change.

    However, in a paper in the 30 January 2009 edition of Science, Anstey&Rogers et al. showed that when desert locusts meet up, their nervous systems release serotonin, which causes them to become mutually attracted, a prerequisite for swarming.

    I never realized how ubiquitous serotonin is. Aside from being widespread in the animal world, it's apparently also used by fungi, seeds and intestinal parasites.

    Serotonin is only two biosynthetic steps removed from the common amino acid tryptophan, which I suspect is part of the reason why it's so prevalent.