Tom Nordlie (352) 392-1773 x 277
FORT LAUDERDALE—Like something from a low-budget horror movie, giant toxic marine toads have invaded South Florida. And while the exotic amphibians are available in pet stores, experts say there are far better — and safer — choices for companionship.
“Some pet dealers sell marine toads, but I can’t imagine why anybody would buy one,” said Frank Mazzotti, wildlife ecologist with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “Here in South Florida, you can’t even give them away.
“They’re not interesting or pleasant to look at, and they secrete a toxin powerful enough to harm your dog or cat,” Mazzotti said. “While they’re not aggressive toward people, you could poison yourself if you’re not careful when handling them.”
Marine toads currently are established in southeastern Florida and the Tampa Bay area, said Mark Hostetler, UF wildlife specialist in Gainesville. Known scientifically as Bufo marinus, the toads are native to an area extending from Mexico and Central America to the Amazon Basin.
Florida’s first marine toad population was established in 1955 by an accidental release at Miami International Airport. Specimens imported by a pet dealer escaped and spread through canals to other areas, he said. Pet dealers deliberately released the toad elsewhere in southeastern Florida in the early 1960s, Hostetler said.
Immature marine toads are difficult to distinguish from native species, Hostetler said, but adult specimens are easy to recognize by their size alone.
“They resemble the familiar Southern toad, but can grow to 9 inches in length and more than 2 pounds in weight,” he said. “Marine toads prefer developed areas, where they use man-made canals and ponds for spawning and gather under electric lights to feed on insects. Too large and slow to flee predators, the toads defend themselves by secreting a milky toxin from glands located behind the head.”
Mazzotti, based at UF’s Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, said the toxin is most dangerous if swallowed. It also irritates eyes and mucus membranes and may cause allergic skin reactions in some people.
People should avoid marine toads and wash their hands thoroughly after any physical contact, he said, and parents should instruct children to report large toads if they run across them. If necessary, homeowners can contact nuisance animal trappers to remove toads.
Mike Purcell, manager of Aquarium Connection, a Gainesville pet store that carries the toad, said the species is available but is not in high demand.
“They’re on the bottom of the list of toads we sell,” he said. “But they’re extremely durable, so they’re really easy to keep as pets.”
Florida law allows licensed pet dealers to sell marine toads, he said.
“There’s no reason to restrict sales of this species,” Purcell said. “The only problem I see with marine toads is the danger of dogs being poisoned, but it’s up to individual pet owners to make sure this doesn’t happen.”
Toad poisoning is a common problem for dogs, particularly terriers, said David Stelling, a veterinarian who has practiced in Miami for 12 years.
“By nature, a lot of terriers are inclined to go after smaller animals,” Stelling said. “But any dog may become territorial and bite a toad. Marine toads will climb into outdoor food bowls to eat leftovers, and this leads to biting incidents.”
Symptoms of toad poisoning in dogs include drooling, head-shaking, vomiting, crying, loss of coordination, and, in more serious cases, convulsions, Stelling said. The dog’s gums often turn red, one of the indicators veterinarians use to identify toad-poisoning cases. For that reason, dog owners should be familiar with normal gum color.
“Treatment is usually successful. I’ve only seen two fatalities, and they were very small dogs,” Stelling said. “If you suspect toad poisoning, get a hose and flush water in the side of the dog’s mouth, pointing the animal’s head downward so water isn’t swallowed. While flushing, remove toxin by rubbing the gums and inside of the mouth until they no longer feel slimy. And call your vet immediately.”
Hostetler said marine toads likely could not survive freezes in North Florida, but they are established on both Florida coasts, raising questions about possible expansion inland, or into other coastal areas.
“Sightings have been reported elsewhere in the state, but that doesn’t mean marine toads are established there,” he said. “Toads may be transported accidentally, and pet owners may turn them loose. Unless there’s a large number of breeding pairs, we’re not going to see long-term populations.”