Amphibians and Reptiles, Pacific Northwest
Vancouver Island, BC has a large & impressive population of Amphibians which includes frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts. Some are almost always seen as individuals but sometimes they can be seen in the thousands, the western toad migration in between Courtenay and Campbell River is one example, you can watch them moving along toad fences as they are guided to culverts that take them under the highway as they head to or from their breeding grounds.
The Western Toad can be found in the Pacific Northwest where we have a large population. Adults can reach up to 14 cm in body length, excluding the hind legs. Males are usually a bit smaller than females and their skin is smoother.
Adult toads have thick stocky bodies and short legs. Their knobby skin looks dry and lumpy and can range in color from pale green to red. They have pale colored bellies mottled with black and a pale green colored stripe down their backs.
Western toad eggs look like black pearls strung on a chain when you see them in the water. Tadpoles are black or very dark grey with a dark, rounded fin that runs the length of their tail. Tadpoles morph into toadlets that may be as small as 6 mm but otherwise are completely identical to the adult toads.
These toads spend much of their time underground in old mammal nests, under logs and in rock crevices along streams.
Adult western toads head to communal breeding wetlands in the early spring. The males search these areas for available females. Males mount females from behind and fertilize the eggs as the female deposits them in the water. After hatching into tadpoles, they quickly morph into toadlets.
We used to go down to the old spit road and watch the annual migration of these toads, thousands of them would cross the road at the same time, since then, this road has been removed and the land has been reclaimed by nature.
Dense groups of toadlets are often found clustered in large piles when the weather turns cool. They forage all summer long. As the weather turns cold in fall, these toads hibernate until spring.
These toads are poisonous. They have an enlarged gland behind each eye that secretes a white poison that can cause the mouth and throat to swell along with nausea, irregular heartbeat, and sometimes even death. These small toads can pose a big danger to pets like cats and dogs. People should always wash their hands after handling any toad.
The Bronze Frog, (a subspecies of the northern green frog) is becoming quite common in the Pacific Northwest, but on Vancouver Island, it is invasive and should be considered a serious threat to our indigenous frog species that live on there.
This frog is a small to medium size frog that can reach up to 10 cm in length. The frog gets its name from the coloration of its skin, they are a bronzy color.
They have a white spotted belly and a dark green color to its upper head and back areas. The males will often have a yellowish throat area.
They are a very beautiful frog to look at and so very tiny. Like little gems. They range in color from grayish to brown, but mostly come in different degrees of green, including bright green, but they can change color quite quickly, possibly in response to changes in temperature or humidity.
Before becoming true frogs they spend all their time in the water but after the change, they move up into the plants and trees. They have sticky pads on their toes for gripping and climbing around in the plants.
They have a dark stripe running from their nostril across the eye and down onto the shoulder. The green tree frog has a very loud and distinct sound. When they mate in the spring in shallow wetlands, the chorus of many tree frogs in the early evening is an incredible sound. I love to sit on our porch and just listen to this wonderful sound after it gets dark.
My wife and I were walking home just after dark early one spring and came across about 100 little frogs ringed around a mud puddle, all calling at the same time. It was fascinating to watch them.
There is a pond close to my home that I like to go to and find different insects and frogs. I was thrilled to watch green tree frogs go from egg to land dwellers this year, it is fascinating to watch the life cycle of these little gems. These little frogs are incredible singers in the spring, they are something to hear for sure.
The males of frog species call to attract mates in a lively chorus, while voiceless salamanders find mates by scent. Mating and egg-laying take place in the water, where eggs and larvae are left to face life alone. The eggs of amphibians develop rapidly and hatch into larvae. Frog and toad larvae, referred to as tadpoles, are good swimmers and feed on aquatic plants.
Salamander larvae eat insects, and quickly develop legs so that they can walk on the bottom of ponds. Over several weeks, the larvae transform into air-breathing, land-dwelling animals. Adult toads, newts, and frogs, here, are most active in the spring & summer and feed on insects and other small creatures. Salamanders are nocturnal, and hide under logs and leaf litter, coming out at night to feed. With the onset of freezing temperatures in late fall, amphibians retreat to their hibernating areas.
Reptiles on the island include snakes & turtles. Different from amphibians, they tend to have scaly skin, ear openings, & feel dry to the touch.
Reptiles usually lay their eggs on land. They are cold-blooded, meaning that they don’t generate their own, internal heat. This is one of the main ways reptiles contrast from other animals, such as mammals and birds. Reptiles, though, must rely on their environment in order to regulate their body temperatures.
Snakes are a large group of animals belonging to the reptile class. Their closest living relatives are the lizards. Together, lizards and snakes form the order Squamata.
They began to appear about 90 million years ago. Scientists believe that snakes are descendants of burrowing lizards that lost their limbs and adapted their vision.
They can normally be characterized by scaly skin, forked tongue and the ability to swallow prey much larger than their own head by unlocking their jaw. All snakes are carnivorous, although their prey varies.
Garters, due to their small size, are quick to heat up and cool down. Like most reptiles, garters warm up by laying in the sun.
Many of the garters must hibernate during the winter due to the severe drop in temperatures. This period of dormancy stimulates mating behaviors in the spring. Garters hibernate in groups that can contain hundreds, even thousands of snakes, spending the winter together helps keep them warm and provides accessibility to each other for spring breeding.
When spring weather arrives, the snakes slowly come awake, some making short forays outside the den, returning for the night to avoid the still cold spring night temperatures above ground.
There is a much rarer snake found on Vancouver Island, the Sharp-Tailed Snake. The Sharp-tailed Snake has a sharp scale on the top of its tail. It is the smallest snake on Vancouver Island, averaging 30 cm in length but can reach lengths of 48 cm. It is reddish-brown to grey. The sharp-tailed snake lays its eggs in the summer and they hatch in the fall. The snake is most active during the rainy months but tends to stay under rocks and another ground cover. I am still waiting to see one.
The skin of reptiles is covered with scales, which consist of a hard substance known as keratin, similar to human hair and fingernails. Scales are replaced periodically through a shedding process, in which the entire skin is sloughed off in one piece or flaked off in smaller pieces.
Turtles live mainly in water, there are about 250 species. Some can live up to 150 years or more. The largest one that visits the Pacific Northwest Region is the leather-back, it can reach a shell length of almost 3 meters and weigh up to 900 kilos.
Though they move very slow on land, the leatherback’s can swim quite fast and some turtles can dive to more than a 1000 meters deep.
They do not have ears to hear and can only feel vibrations, but their sense of smell is very strong. Some migrate thousands of kilometers by traveling under water and yet, they are able to arrive at the same beach from where they took off, scientists are still trying to figure out how they do this, l would suspect that they use their sense of smell to accomplish this.
The only native ones left on Vancouver Island is the painted turtle, although there are the introduced red-eared slider and the snapping turtle is found on parts of the Island now, a result of pet store turtles being turned loose.
Sometimes you can see them stacked 3 or 4 high on a good sunning spot, this quite amazing to observe but it seems there are only so many good spots.