DOES SMOKING A TOAD GIVE YOU WARTS?

by Whit Gibbons

April 5, 2015

I recently heard southern toads and gray treefrogs calling in the woods after a rain. Their respective trills make beautiful forest music that belies their appearances, and their toxic capabilities. The experience made me remember questions I've been asked about frogs and toads. One I have been asked many times, the other not so much.

Q: I have heard that toads can cause warts and that some frogs are poisonous if you pick them up. Is there any truth to these statements?

A: The answer is no and yes. I know of no scientific evidence that toads can cause warts despite the common superstition. However, some frogs and toads produce noxious or even deadly poisons to which humans can be susceptible.

Toads have warty skin and some of these bumps are glands that produce poisonous substances. Likewise, many frogs have glands in their skin that produce toxins. The poison produced by skin glands of frogs and toads unquestionably serves as defense against some of their predators by making them unpalatable. The toxic-producing glands are all over the body and legs in some species, providing protection no matter where a predator grabs them. The toxic substances of some species may discourage parasites from attaching to the frog's skin and inhibit the growth of fungus or bacteria.

A pair of paratoid glands is evident on the top of the head in some species of toads. These large glands produce secretions called bufotoxin that can sometimes be seen as a milky liquid when the gland is squeezed. Secretions from the paratoid glands of some species can be extremely toxic and even lethal for some animals that bite them. The effect it has on a potential predator is evident when a dog bites a common garden toad and then begins to foam at the mouth.

The toxic skin secretion of frogs such as the common gray tree frog can cause extreme discomfort if it gets into the membranes of the eyes or nose. So don't rub your eyes if you pick one up. A few South American frogs known as the poison dart frogs produce alkaloid toxins on their skin that are among the deadliest poisons known. I have a friend who picked up one of these frogs. The skin secretions got into a minor cut on his arm and within seconds he went into a comalike condition and almost died.

My favorite all-time toad question is the following.

Q: This may sound like a dumb question, but a friend says she knew someone from California who smoked toads at a campfire on a beach. Could this be true? I think she is pulling my leg, so she said to ask you.

A: The first rule of thumb about tales from California is to believe anything you hear until someone proves it is false, especially if it happened on a beach. Your friend's account could certainly be true. Let me clarify one point: Toads are not smoked like oysters or toasted like marshmallows. Instead, toad smoking, which evolved from toad licking, involves the use of cigarette papers.

In toad licking, one laps up toxic secretions from paratoid glands on a toad's head to achieve psychedelic effects. A significant drawback, however, is that a frequent toad licker can become ill, maybe even die. So clever Californians found a way around the problem. Because heat breaks down the toxic components in the toad's glandular secretions without affecting the sought-after hallucinogenic compounds, toad secretions can be dried and rolled in cigarette papers. Hey presto, a puff or two and you're ready for your trip.

But beware. Besides being a bizarre practice, smoking or licking a toad has legal implications. The hallucinogens extracted from toads are an illegal substance.

I personally doubt that either toad licking or toad smoking will ever become a serious problem, but let me go on record as saying that ingesting poison may be hazardous to your health. So think before you lick or inhale.

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