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That Electronic Beeping Call That Disturbs Your Summer Sleep May Not Be Your Mobile
Best not confuse the mating call of Alytes obstertricans with your wife’s mobile phone if you want to keep the matrimonial peace, writes Mike Alexander.
It started with a faint beep just as I was reaching that point where the bed was at exactly the right temperature and sleep gloriously imminent – the faint beep that a mobile phone gives to warn you that the battery is about to die. I tried to ignore it in the hope that it was my imagination playing tricks on me but no sooner had I once more begun to doze off than I heard it again. Fully awake now I moved into tactical mode; keeping still and breathing deeply in the hope that my wife would think I was asleep and respond to the beep herself. It was her phone after all. I could hear deep breathing from her three quarters of the bed. Either she was asleep or she was using the same tactics as I was. Briefly I considered waking her but then I remembered how badly she had reacted when, suspecting there were burglars in the kitchen downstairs I had woken her on a previous occasion.
Shuddering at the memory I abandoned my perfectly warmed nest and felt my way through the dark to the living room where her phone was plugged in and innocently charging. I was just starting an inspection of the vast array of other electronic household gadgets with beep capability when I heard a series of new beeps and realised they were coming from the garden. That was my first introduction to Alytes obstertricans, better known as the midwife toad.
These tiny little toads measuring only three to five centimetres in length are widely spread across France and can even survive above the snow line in the Pyrenees. Between March and midsummer the male gives out a plaintive little electronic beeping call in order to attract a mate, almost always at night. By day they hide in stone walls or dig themselves a hole using their front legs and snout.
They normally remain within a few hundred meters of water but are unusual in the toad world in that they mate on land. When the male attracts a mate she spills her eggs onto the ground in long jelly like strings and only then does he fertilize them. After that he wraps the strings around his rear legs and lower back and carries them with him until the tadpoles are ready to hatch, hence the name midwife. There may be as many as seventy eggs per batch and he will carry and care for them for as long as 45 days. If he encounters another female he will mate again and may end up transporting as many as three clutches of eggs at once. Females are reluctant to mate with males already carrying eggs and will lay much smaller clutches if the male has mated previously. I imagine it is a bit of a turn off being courted by a male who looks like he is wearing baggy underpants made out of jelly.
Despite the embarrassing attire, males take their parenting duties very seriously. If the eggs seem to be getting too dry they will go swimming and conversely if conditions are too wet they will walk around with legs outstretched so the eggs do not become humid. They are able to secrete a foul smelling poison from the warts on their backs and this helps deter predators from harming either toad or eggs. When the tadpoles are ready to emerge he will find an area of shallow, slow moving water and wade in at which point the tadpoles jump into the water to continue their adolescence. They will metamorphose into adult toads after three to five weeks and will then leave the water and hibernate in a hole or crevasse until the following spring. It takes a toad two to three years to reach sexual maturity and midwife toads can live for as long as eight years.
Like most amphibians in Europe they are threatened by the deadly fungal disease chytridiomycosis which originated with the African claw frog but are far more at risk from habitat loss caused by man. Although shy and seldom seen, their sad electronic love songs can be heard even in quite built up areas across much of Europe on these warm (even tropically excessive) summer nights.
Writer: Mike Alexander
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