The Surinam Toad: A Strange Amphibian From South America

The Surinam toad has a flattened appearance and tiny, almost unnoticeable eyes.
The Surinam toad has a flattened appearance and tiny, almost unnoticeable eyes. | Source

A Very Strange Amphibian

The Surinam toad lives in South America and is one of the strangest amphibians on Earth. It has a flattened body, a triangular head and tiny eyes. It also has one of the weirdest methods of reproduction of any amphibian.

Reproduction begins with the male and female toad performing an elegant mating swim. The female releases eggs, which the male fertilizes. He carefully places the fertilized eggs on the female’s back. The eggs then sink and become embedded in the female’s spongy skin. A honeycomb-like structure develops, with one egg in each chamber of the honeycomb. Skin grows over the eggs and they eventually disappear from view.

The eggs hatch inside the chambers. As the young toads grow they move around, creating a rippling appearance on the female’s back. Eventually the tiny toads break out of their chambers and escape into the world.

The Surinam toad is named after the country of Suriname, which is located in the northeastern part of South America.
The Surinam toad is named after the country of Suriname, which is located in the northeastern part of South America. | Source

The Surinam toad is also known as the Suriname toad and the star-fingered toad.

Habitat and Distribution

The scientific name of the Surinam toad is Pipa pipa. It belongs to the order Anura (which contains frogs and toads) and the family Pipidae. The animal lives in the northern part of South America. It's named after the country of Suriname but is found in neighbouring countries, too. It's also found in the Caribbean on the island of Trinidad.

The toad is most common in the Amazon basin. It inhabits tropical rain forests at low elevations and is found in murky ponds, swamps and slow-moving streams. It also lives in captivity around the world as a pet and a zoo animal.

A Curious Creature: The Surinam Toad

Physical Features

The toad has a very strange, squished appearance that make it look as though it has been been involved in a nasty accident. Unlike other frogs and toads, the Surinam toad doesn't sit upright on its hind legs. It's constantly in a flattened posture.

The animal has a wide body with a triangular head and tiny black eyes that have no eyelids. Its nostrils are located at the end of tubular structures on its snout. It reaches a maximum length of about eight inches, not including the legs, but most individuals are four to six inches in length.

The long “fingers” on the toad's front legs have star-shaped structures at their tips, giving the animal the alternate name of star-fingered toad. The rays of the stars end in filaments. These filaments are very sensitive to touch. Unlike its front feet, the toad's hind feet are webbed. The back legs are strong and are used for propulsion, but the front legs are weaker.

Feeding a Captive Toad

Skin and Colouration

The toad is grey, brown or olive in colour. Its skin is covered with warty protuberances. Small tentacle-like extensions project from the chin and the corners of the jaw. Some individuals have a dark grey line on their undersurface that extends from the middle of theIr throat to the end of their abdomen. This line is known as a seam due to its appearance. The top of the seam occasionally meets a horizontal bar across the chest, producing a T shape.

The animal's mottled and drab colour, its flat body and its habit of lying motionless on the bottom of a pond or stream make it look like plant debris or a dead and decaying body. This is probably a very useful feature for disguising the toad in the wild, especially since it's often an ambush hunter.

A preserved female Surinam toad, showing the chambers where the young toads developed
A preserved female Surinam toad, showing the chambers where the young toads developed | Source

The Life of a Surinam Toad

The Surinam toad is almost completely aquatic, although it does move over land when its watery habitat dries up or during heavy rains. It comes to the water surface every half hour or so to breathe air, but it can stay underwater for an hour or more.

The toad doesn’t have a tongue or teeth. It either probes sediments for food with its long and sensitive fingers or it waits to ambush its prey. It sweeps the prey into its mouth with its fingers or lunges at its prey with its mouth, using suction to ingest the food. The Surinam toad eats worms, insects, crustaceans and fish.

Like fish, the toad has a lateral line on each side of its body. This organ developed in fish as an adaptation to aquatic life and is sensitive to water motion. The lateral line helps the toad to detect the movement of other animals in the water and is probably a valuable tool for detecting prey.

The video below shows the paired swim during egg laying in the Sabana Surinam toad (Pippa parva). This animal is a relative of the Surinam toad.

Male and Female Sabana Surinam Toads During Egg Laying

Mating and Fertilization

Surinam toads mate under water. The male toad doesn’t croak. Instead, he makes clicking sounds to attract a mate. He produces these sounds by moving the hyoid bone in his throat. Once the male has found a receptive female, he climbs on to her back and wraps his front legs around her body in a process known as amplexus.

While they are joined together, the pair swim through the water. They gracefully somersault as they swim and may stay attached for hours. The female is larger than the male and provides most of the propulsion with her hind legs. While the toads are both upside down during a somersault, the female releases eggs, which fall on to the male’s belly. The pair then move into their upright positions. The eggs drop on to the female’s back and the male fertilizes them.

Unlike many other anurans, Surinam toads have neither vocal cords nor vocal sacs.

Female Toad Carrying Her Eggs

Egg Laying and Deposition

After fertilization, the male gently sweeps the eggs up with his hind feet. The webs of his feet expand to form a fan, enabling the male to position the eggs carefully on his mate’s back. The eggs stick to the female's back, although how they do this is a mystery. The eggs don't stick to the male, even when they are in contact with his body, and they don't stick to each other.

The egg laying and depositing processes are repeated multiple times. The female eventually ends up with 60 to 100 eggs on her back. Once all the eggs have been positioned, the male leaves the female, his job done.

Babies Emerging From Their Mother's Skin

Development of the Eggs

Over a period of about twenty-four hours, the eggs sink into the female’s skin. The skin swells up to surround them. A covering forms over the eggs, which hides the presence of the babies. The baby toads take three to four months to develop.

As the babies grow, their activity in the female's skin becomes more and more noticeable. Once the youngsters reach a certain size, the skin "bubbles" as the babies move.

Eventually the young toads emerge from their chambers, leaving holes in their mother's skin. They snap at food as soon as they're released. The female sheds her damaged skin after the babies leave and grows a new skin layer for the next breeding season.

A Close-Up View of the Surinam Toad's Amazing Birth

The IUCN Red List Categories
The IUCN Red List Categories | Source

The Red List categories shown from left to right in the above diagram are as follows

EX - Extinct

EW - Extinct in the wild

CR - Critically Endangered

EN - Endangered

VU - Vulnerable

NT - Near Threatened

LC - Least Concern

Population Status

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has established a Red List which classifies animals according to their nearness to extinction. The Surinam toad is currently classified in the "Least Concern" category of the Red List. Some other members of its biological family are not so lucky.

The Myers' Surinam toad (Pipa myersi) has a similar reproductive method to its Pipa pipa relative. It lives in Panama and possibly in Columbia. It's threatened by habitat loss due to deforestation and by water pollution. It's classified as endangered on the Red List.

Some people worry that the Surinam toad population could run into trouble in some parts of its range. It's collected for the pet trade and is also facing habitat destruction due to logging and the clearance of land for agriculture. It may be sensitive to water pollution, too. Overall, however, the population seems to be doing okay at the moment. Hopefully it will continue to do well and researchers will be able to learn more about this very interesting animal.

© 2011 Linda Crampton

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Comments 14 comments

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thebluearatus 5 years ago

this toad looks too different than anyone else of its family. I have read about it, and got to know much more from your article.

Great description

Keep it up.

Looking forward to your other works

thanks


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, thebluearatus. The Surinam toad certainly is a strange and interesting animal!


b. Malin profile image

b. Malin 5 years ago

These Toads look like someone stepped on them Alicia. What a Life they lead, very Interesting insight...and of course the Videos are wonderful...Especially the birth and later the mother being able to shed her skin for a new one. Mmm, don't we all wish we could do that! Good Hub once again, Alicia!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Yes, b. Malin, these toads do look very much like someone stepped on them! They have a very different body shape from other frogs and toads. I hadn't thought of the benefit of losing our old skin and growing a new one, but it sounds like a very good idea! Thanks for the visit and the comment.


Chatkath profile image

Chatkath 5 years ago from California

I have to agree with b. Malin, the poor things look like road kill! What an amazing creature though! It is so miraculous when you consider what they are capable of! I have never heard of these before-and I thought by brother collected every frog, toad and salamander that exists :-D

You always find the most interesting things Alicia!!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, Chatkath. You must have had an interesting childhood with all those animals that your brother brought home! I agree with you, Surinam toads are amazing. I find them one of the most interesting amphibians. Their body structure and method of reproduction is so unusual.


drbj profile image

drbj 5 years ago from south Florida

These toads are fascinating creatures, Alicia. Thank you for your explicit research and well-written hub. They rank right up there with the other weird fish and amphibians I have written about: the Axolotl, the Anglerfish and the Blobfish.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, drbj. Thank you for the comment. I think that all animals are interesting, but the weird ones are especially interesting! I'm looking forward to reading your hubs.


prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 5 years ago from malang-indonesia

I had never knew about this before. Thanks for writing and share with us. I really enjoy the video above. Well done, Alicia. Vote it up!

Prasetio


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the vote, Prasetio. I'm glad that you enjoyed the hub and the videos!


Giwan profile image

Giwan 5 years ago from Amsterdam

Interesting article. I am actually from Surinam originally but have never really seen one of these. I guess there is not much chance of encountering them in the city :)


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment, Giwan. I'd love to see a Surinam toad in the wild - that would be such an interesting experience!


Nettlemere profile image

Nettlemere 4 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

I'd heard about them growing their babies on their backs like midwife toads, but never seen it. The footage of the toadletts popping out is freaky but fab!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Nettlemere. Yes, I agree, the video of the Surinam toad babies emerging from their mother's back is certainly freaky! Midwife toads are very interesting too, and it does look like the eggs are being carried on the male's back, although they are actually wrapped around his legs. Amphibians have some interesting methods of reproduction! Thanks for the comment.

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