Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Media Fail: A Toad Panic Ensues

    I see a lot of news articles that incite fear and panic about amphibians and reptiles, but this one might take the cake. This article, which warns pet-owners of a giant toad that will kill dogs, came to my attention because of an e-mail Theresa Stratmann sent to me. The story was getting a lot of attention and she was concerned that even though it is only about one species of introduced toad, it could make people afraid of all toads, even our harmless native species. After seeing it myself, I could not agree more.

Photo courtesy of Ltshears, Wikimedia Images.
    Let's get something out of the way. The Cane Toad (Rhinella marina) is a very large species of toad from Central and South America. Unfortunately, it has been introduced all over the world (notably Australia), including Florida. These toads eat a lot of small native species and their poisonous glands make them dangerous to any would-be predators. In short, they are a very damaging invasive species.

    But, a toad is not a toad! The southeastern United States has a number of smaller native species that are quite harmless. Here's a very useful website describing how to distinguish the Cane Toad from the native species in Florida.

    Scientists often use scientific names because each animal only has one of them and this helps make sure there is no confusion about which animal they are talking about. On the other hand, many species have multiple common names. For example, Rhinella marina has been referred to as the Cane Toad (this is what most people I know prefer), the Marine Toad, the Giant Toad, and the Bufo Toad. This last name is the most confusing.

    We are always learning more about the evolutionary relationships of animals and that means we have to change scientific names. The official scientific name of Rhinella marina used to be Bufo marinus! So, I guess it makes sense why some people would call them a Bufo Toad...but the harmless native species in the southeastern United States also used to be in the Bufo genus. So, this is clearly a misleading and confusing name for Rhinella marina and I hope it fades away.

     The terrible video Theresa made me watch wanted everyone to know that there were deadly toads all over Florida and they were likely to kill your pets. As you might have guessed, they were referring to Rhinella marina and calling it the Bufo Toad. I would be able to let it slide that they were using Bufo Toad to refer to Rhinella marina if they had made clear that this was an invasive species not to be confused with our native species. But they never even mentioned our native species (remember, these native toads also used to be in the Bufo genus). I still might have cut them some slack, but they showed pictures of the harmless native species when they were actually talking about Rhinella marina! At this point, I realized they were just lazy fear-mongerers.

    These days many media outlets simply report on what other media outlets are reporting, so it's hard to identify the "original" article about Cane Toads that started this whole fiasco (perhaps this one?) but I don't think the story got everyone's attention until it appeared in the New York Daily News. To the author's credit, he did at least note that Bufo Toads were an invasive species, but there were other important problems (and not just the confusing use of "Bufo Toad").

    I contacted the author on Twitter to voice my displeasure.

I was pleased to see that he was receptive to my complaints.

    You can check out the thread on Twitter to see the full conversation, but I left with the impression that a number of corrections would be issued to the article. They were not, so here we are.

1. The problems start with the title. The Cane Toad is not venomous, it is poisonous. Venom is injected and poison is ingested.

2. The article twice refers to Cane Toads as slimy. Toads are not slimy and nobody that has ever touched one would say so. Frogs have a wet skin, toads have a dry warty skin.

3. The article says that Cane Toads are larger than any other frog or toad in Florida. The Orlando Sentinel is cited as the source for this statement, which in turn cites the University of Florida Wildlife Extension. Presumably they are referring to this page. I'm giving partial credit to this one because although a very big Cane Toad can reach larger sizes than Florida species, the Bullfrog can hold its own.

4. Finally, the article states Cane Toads were expanding their range because of climate change. This is a pretty bold claim. What's the source? This website from the ASPCA about a dog that had been poisoned by a Cane Toad. This is the relevant statement:

"Bufo marinus, also known as the giant toad, marine toad, or cane toad, is a large nocturnal toad found mostly in Florida, Hawaii, and a small section of southern Texas. Extensions of these traditional geographical boundaries have been recently noted as a result of environmental change.1"

    First of all, Florida and Hawaii are not the traditional geographic boundaries of this species, the species was introduced there. Second, the source for this statement is:

"POISINDEX editorial staff: Toad toxins. POISINDEX System [intranet database]. Micromedex, Englewood, Colorado, 2012."

    I didn't bother to track this one down, it's obviously not a legitimate source when talking about whether Cane Toads are expanding their geographic range because of climate change (for what it's worth, here's a map of where the Cane Toad can be found in Florida). This article/report should have never been cited in the New York Daily News article (notice the expanding area bit also appears in the headline).

    This blog post went a little longer than I had expected. Look, there are a lot of dangerous things out there, don't let your cats and dogs eat wildlife, whether they are toxic, harmless, native or introduced, and I think we will be all in good shape. To the general public, don't go on a panicked toad-killing spree, most species are harmless. And journalists, in the future please talk to a wildlife professional when you are working on wildlife stories. There are simply too many wildlife professionals out there (Helloooo!) willing to talk to you to excuse this kind of fear-mongering and general sloppiness.

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