GREAT FALLS TRIBUNE (Montana) 16 August 05 Ideal conditions led to Big Sandy's toad invasion
Photo: Garrit Ophus, 17, holds a handful of small Great Plains toads he collected from in and around the city pool in Big Sandy Monday. Thousands of the hopping critters have invaded the small town of Big Sandy over the last week. (Robin Loznak)
Rest easy Big Sandy, hail and locusts are not in the forecast.
The thousands of toads that hopped into the farm town en masselast week are not one of the Biblical seven plagues, which were actually frogs anyway.
Instead of God's wrath, they represent nature's bounty, likely the result of a rainy spring, herpetologists say.
The nickel-sized amphibians are Great Plains Toads, which are classified as a "Species of Concern" in Montana, said Allison Puchniak, a native species biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Billings.
"Knowing that they had a good year is really very exciting," Puchniak said. "We don't have an enormous number of breeding ponds documented in Montana."
The brown and black toads, which look like they're dressed in military camouflage, are known to burrow into the earth until weather conditions are just right and then breed en masse, Puchniak said.
The young "herps," as biologists like to call them, came to town after they "metamorphosed," or matured from tadpoles to toads, and left their nursery pond together in search of food.
The bumper crop was likely the result of a good pond with no fish or predatory insects combined with a good, wet year.
It only takes a few of the web-footed creatures to achieve a baby boom — each female can lay up to 45,000 eggs, Puchniak said.
But although they're not threatened or endangered, the toads are not abundant in Montana. And they don't reach sexual maturity for two to three years, during which time many cruel fates can await them.
Puchniak encouraged curious folks to enjoy, but not collect the tiny visitors.
Collecting native amphibians for commercial sale is illegal in Montana, she said.
And keeping them alive is a challenge.
The toads need certain types of ants, termites and beetles, combined with proper burrowing material, to survive, Puchniak said.
"As interesting and exciting as it is, we would encourage people to watch wildlife where they see them."