For many students who come to Riverwood to take part in one of our education programs, the highlight of their trip is seeing animals in real life. Out in the park, tree-scrambling squirrels, hungry chickadees, and shy deer have a way of thrilling students of all ages. Inside our classrooms, animals like our fire-bellied toads give students a chance to gaze at wildlife without worrying about them quickly disappearing into the forest!
How they help students learn about nature
The Parker Room has been home to our toads since 2014 when Education Naturally teacher, Erin Farrow, adopted them from an individual who could no longer care for them. These animals have since become a vital teaching resource, and Erin has also seen the therapeutic effect they can have. The toads invite close observation and provide a sense of comfort, and even companionship, for students. Visiting children with special needs and students without close friends are deeply drawn to the animals, sometimes pulling up their chairs to have lunch with them. I’ve seen high school students do the same thing too!
These animals help us teach science in a way that can be more engaging than words in a textbook. The toads are known for their camouflaging abilities, making a fun “Where’s Waldo” kind of challenge for students. The toads help us explain to students the differences between frogs (water-dwelling) and toads (land-dwelling), and between amphibians and reptiles. They can be myth-busters too. People are often surprised to learn that toads don’t give people warts! And they help us teach the difference between wild animals and pets.
The toads routinely spark questions from our students: How many are there? What colours are on their bodies? What do they eat? Are they friends? Can they blink? Where do they live? Why do they move their throats like that? Our toads are rockstars when it comes to creating inquiry of the natural world. Best of all, they foster connections between people and wildlife, igniting genuine care for the environment.
What’s in a name?
The “fire” part of the common name for these animals comes from the bright colours on their bellies, which serves as a warning to predators that they are toxic. When threatened, the amphibians secrete a milky toxin from pores all over their bodies. One taste and predators leave them alone! The toads’ toxins are not harmful to people unless we ingest them. Pro tip – don’t eat toads.
These animals are called toads because of the bumpy look of their skin. Both frogs and toads are amphibians, a word meaning “double life.” This describes how they live in water as eggs and tadpoles, and then on land near water as adults.
In our science-focused classes for elementary and secondary students, we highlight how common names can be confusing. Students learn about the more accurate scientific names for animals using binomial nomenclature. The fire-bellied toad’s genus and species is Bombina orientalis.
The fire-bellied toad lives in forests with slow-moving streams or ponds in northeastern China, Korea, southern Japan, and Russia. They are omnivores, feeding on plants as tadpoles and invertebrates as adults. They can’t extend their tongues to catch their food. Instead, they leap forward and catch prey with their mouths, then use their forelegs to stuff the food in.
Hear the world like a fire-bellied toad
Unlike most frogs and toads, fire-bellied toads don’t have an eardrum (tympanic membrane) to hear sound. Instead, sound waves travel into their mouths and through their skin to their lungs. The sound waves keep going into the soft tissue around the lungs and finally arrive at the inner ear.
You can get a sense of how these toads hear the world by conducting a simple experiment. Put on some loud music, face the speaker, and plug your ears with your fingers. First, listen with your mouth closed. Then, listen with your mouth open. Can you hear better with your mouth open or closed?
Where are they now?
When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Mississauga, we had to close our buildings and change our operations to a work-from-home model. But we couldn’t just leave the toads alone in the Parker Room! Until we can safely return to our offices and classrooms, staff from The Riverwood Conservancy have taken the toads home. The stars of the field trips we usually offer now have a chance to go on a field trip of their own!
If you have the means, please consider making a donation to The Riverwood Conservancy to help us cover expenses like food, filters, and medicines for our animals. You can ensure they stay healthy and ready to return to their educational duties at Riverwood when it’s safe for us to hold classes again. Thank you!