By Cindy Hardin, Director of Outdoor Education

One of the most inspirational projects of Los Angeles Audubon’s education division is the creation of a native habitat area at Leo Politi Elementary School. A 5,000 square foot patch of Bermuda grass was removed and replaced with native plants.

The hilly nature of the site allowed for the creation of a seasonal, or vernal pond. These rain-fed ponds were found all over the Los Angeles Basin less than two hundred years ago. The Western Spade Foot Toad was a denizen of this habitat, and although the site at Leo Politi is way too small to host this species, it is a great springboard to start a discussion about what our region was like in the not too distant past. What follows is a teaching aid created for the teachers at Leo Politi. Learn about this very interesting amphibian, and take the quiz afterwards to see if you are “smarter than a fifth grader”!

The Western Spade Foot Toad, although not “mega-fauna” by any stretch of the imagination, is certainly charismatic to me! How about that smile?

shammondispade2mg webThe black spots on each back leg are the “spades” that the Toad uses to dig its burrows. The Western Spade Foot Toad will back up to the ground, and use its hind legs to dig a hole for itself that can be up to three feet deep.

The Western Spade Foot Toad (scaphiopus hammondii hammondii), once found throughout the state of California, is a species whose numbers have radically decreased due to human impact on its habitat. The toad’s life cycle and habits enable it to survive successfully in our Mediterranean climate. Unlike many other amphibians, the Western Spade Foot Toad can survive for months on end without water, and is in fact a largely terrestrial animal. This toad uses aquatic habitat strictly for reproduction and during the tadpole stage, most often breeding in seasonal or vernal ponds. The rest of its life is spent in burrows underground, which can be up to three feet in depth. They can remain in these burrows for eight to nine months, emerging only to mate and replenish themselves adequately to return to the torpor like state assumed when residing in their burrows. The seasonal pond at the Politi habitat is a great springboard to discuss and learn about the Western Spade Foot Toad.

•The toad takes its name from the glossy black spade shaped formation on the back of each hind leg. Like a spade, this feature helps the toad to dig a burrow that will be his shelter for the majority of his life cycle. The toad favors habitats with loose, sandy soil, which makes it easier for him to dig. This is the kind of fast draining soil that is characteristic of our coastal sage scrub habitat.

•The Western Spadefoot Toad is primarily nocturnal, which helps to prevent dehydration when it does emerge from its burrow. Its skin is quite porous, which enables it to absorb moisture while underground.

•The breeding sites of this species are usually vernal ponds and temporary rain pools. Water must be present in the pond for at least 30 days for the tadpoles to grow large enough to transform into adult toads. However, if the water remains in the pond for a longer period, the tadpole will delay transformation, taking advantage of the conditions to grow bigger and acquire more fat. Those tadpoles that have a longer period in the pond generally have a better rate of survival. The short-lived nature of these ponds is actually helpful to the toad’s survival; the water is not present for enough time for native and non-native predators to establish.

•Adult toads spend on average eight to nine months in their burrows, emerging one to two days after a heavy rain to breed. Their breeding season is usually from February to Late May. While out of their burrows they eat voraciously, consuming insects, worms and other invertebrates. They love grasshoppers, ladybugs, moths and worms. They can consume 11% of their body weight in one sitting. This prodigious eating enables them to survive extended periods underground, at which time they do not consume food or water.

•In order to have a successful breeding preserve and prevent inbreeding it is thought that a minimum of 132 acres is required.

•During dry years the toads may skip breeding altogether. Most toads live through two rainy seasons before they are mature enough to breed.

•The Western Spadefoot Toad was once abundant in California. The diversion of water and depletion of groundwater for agriculture and other human needs has destroyed much of their habitat. Periodic drought has also impacted their breeding sites.


1) If a toad weighs 28 grams, how much (in grams) can it consume in one feeding session?
2) How has the alteration of the landscape by man changed the population of the Western Spade Foot Toad? Has it helped the species or harmed it? How?
3) In order to have a successful breeding population of Western Spade Foot Toads a minimum of 132 acres is required. The Habitat at Leo Politi is approximately 5,000 square feet. How many habitats the size of the one at Politi would need to be joined together to create a successful preserve?
4) If one of these toads stays out of its burrow past sunrise, what could happen to the animal?
5) Could one of these toads dig a burrow for itself in the Politi Habitat? In what parts of the area would the soil be loose enough for the toad to successfully burrow?
6) How long would there have to be water in the vernal pond for the tadpoles to reach maturity?