Friday, 5 April 2013

A Toad by any Other Name...


“The world has held great Heroes,
As history-books have showed;
But never a name to go down to fame
Compared with that of Toad

[…]

The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them knew one half as much
As intelligent Mr Toad!”

― Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows, 1908)


To most he was known simply as a common toad. However, as far as Tom was concerned, there was nothing common about this *bufo bufo!  A bigger chap than most with a penchant for the spotlight made Tom the centre of attention. Nonetheless, when breeding season was over, he was left to his own thoughts without a captive audience… As an older fellow, he had stories collected from the generations before him. Tom was a wonderful fabricator of intrigue and suspense and always looked forward to sharing his knowledge and stories during the yearly spring time migration to the breeding sites.

Like many toads, Tom led a relatively solitary life. The occasional interactions he would have with other toads were usually restricted to the breeding season. Although he pretended to enjoy the peace and quiet of an independent life, he often felt the pangs of loneliness that troubled some of the other species that surrounded his habitat.

By Ernst Haeckel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Now almost all of his fellow brethren toads had learned early in life to discriminate between glowing and non-glowing prey, but Tom had developed a taste for the bioluminescent treat known around the habitat as the firefly. The unpalatibility of firefly larvae was a flavour he had learned to ignore. Since, with the ingesting of these flashing beings came a far better reward than a tasty meal!

It was an ordinary evening like most of them. Tom had spent his day in the cool dampness of his lair. The place he called home was a hollowed out root that had served his purposes well over the past few months. The lair had gone relatively undetected by any of the local rodents and even by most of the resident cats that often patrolled the area. Tom looked forward to the evening hunt for prey. With the unmelodiousness of crickets chirping the sun gently fell beneath the horizon. It was time! He could hardly contain himself as he crossed the threshold of the safety of his lair. Generally Tom would slowly walk to his hunting grounds for his evening meal, but tonight was going to be a story-telling night. On story-telling nights Tom was excited to get to the hunting grounds and took quick awkward hops in an effort to hasten his journey.

As Tom the toad made his way to his familiar podium to tell The Tale of the Toadstone, William was just
By David Eickhoff from Pearl City, Hawaii, USA (Dragonfly naiad skin  Uploaded by Tim1357) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commonsdiscovering his new surroundings. William was new to this unfamiliar world of flashing light and excitement. Seymour had told him a little about the world beyond the surface of the water, but nothing had prepared him for the reams of new sights and the crispness of this world above water. During his larval stage William had fed on other invertebrates such as mosquito larvae. He also fed on small fish and tadpoles. However, when it came to feeding on tadpoles that was an art in itself! In order to avoid the toxic secretions of toad tadpoles, if they were to be a meal, dragonfly larvae needed to puncture the skin and suck out their juices. This was going to be William’s first hunt above water and he wondered about finding his meal. He had molted for the very last time and cast away his *exuviae. As a *teneral adult, William was pale and extremely vulnerable. He had been vigilant about finding a safe place for this final metamorphosis as Seymour had warned him about the dangers beyond the aquatic habitat that he had grown so accustomed to as a nymph. It would take time for the blood to travel through the network of veins in his wings and for them to harden before he would be able to fly. Even his new legs felt weak and it would take a few days for his body to fully harden. Until that time, William needed to be ever so watchful of his environment since he would also need a few days to hone his flying skills. He sat quietly on the stem and patiently waited for the moment when he would be able to fly.

By Inconnus [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsIt was a marvellous night for story-telling. The sky was ablaze with the flash of fireflies and Tom knew he would easily attract an audience. As he settled in on his podium he began to prepare for the night’s oration! Tom’s podium was a rock at the water’s edge. The back side was surrounded by vegetation that allowed him to blend with his surroundings. At the front was an opening that had a view of the water and surrounding stones and vegetative platforms for his onlookers.

It was a great spot to find all sorts of prey, spiders, crickets and caterpillars were abound, and even tiny fish and tasty animals could be found. But for tonight Tom had made up his mind, and fireflies were all he was looking to find! He sat ever so still and waited for his meal to come to him. The first catches were easiest and so it was always essential to snag as many fireflies as he could before they caught on to his game. Tom unfurled his tongue with a mighty thrust and extended it to snap up the first flashing light for the night! One after the other he whipped out his tongue and caught his unsuspecting prey by surprise. It was a good night for fireflies, and it wasn’t long before Tom was ready to tell his tale. As he filled his belly with the bioluminescent firefly prey Tom began to glow! He didn’t need to call out to gather an audience, the afterglow of his evening meal created a splendid luminosity that attracted connoisseurs of his evening narratives of legends and stories and sparked the curiousity of newcomers. As the night went on Tom recounted The Tale of the Toadstone.

Shiokawa Bunrin [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsMeanwhile, a short distance off William had been sitting on his perch and enjoying the twinkle of the night sky. Some of the lights seemed to flash brighter than others, and as the night went on he noted how the sky gradually lost the vibrancy of these flashing lights. All but one, there was one flashing light that seem to grow stronger as the night sky around him lost its sparkling glow. William had extended his wings and could feel they were getting stronger. His legs were getting harder and no longer felt as weak as they had when he first emerged from his nymph shell. He had taken a few steps to the tip of his perch and looked closely toward the glowing light. He watched this bioluminescent blob throughout the night and had decided he would investigate as soon as his wings were ready.

Tom’s belly was a really crowd gatherer. At the beginning of the evening it appeared to sparkle but it slowly took on a synchronistic flashing that he used to add flare and oomph to his tale. This was not Tom’s first appearance on the podium and he had learned over the years how to thrill and delight his spectators to the point of Oohs and Ahs! He would weave his story around the synchronised belly sparkles of light and methodical glows. Each flash of light played eloquently into highlighting a moment that would excite, startle or keep the *knot on baited hook! Dawn was creeping in and as
Tom’s belly glow began to dwindle he drew his story to a close.

The sun was not yet up but William felt the strength in his wings and was eager to uncover the source of the methodical radiant glow that had captured his attention. It was time. He was so enthralled by the night’s luminescent display that he couldn’t wait for the sun to warm his body for flight. With a gentle flick he shook the dew from his wings and moved his stiff body. It wasn’t long before he fired up his wings and that they began whirring and his muscles started to warm.

Tom had a voracious appetite like most of his chums. However, on story nights he never did get quite enough to eat. After he took his bow, and the *knot dispersed to return to their lairs, Tom was keen to catch a few more insects before retreating to his humble abode. He lingered on the rocky podium and watched for unsuspecting prey.

William had been slowly warming his body for his maiden voyage while Tom patiently waited for a final snack. As the dawn had crept in, William wiped the morning dew from his eyes, all the while his wings worked to heat his body in preparation to take to the skies for a day full of adventure! His wings swiftly fluttered, gradually pulling him from his perch. Before William could notice he was aloft! He bounced and fumbled slightly in the air but was determined to stay on course to discover the origins of this mysterious glow.

The sun was slowly rising and Tom was growing impatient postponing his return home. “One more catch and then I’ll be off…” As William closed in on the site he had been watching all night he couldn’t see any glowing mass. The sun had risen and there was nothing here but a bumpy fat creature with an oversized mouth. William was disappointed that he had not figured out the mystery and turned around to fly back toward his perch when he felt a shift in the air around him...

* bufo bufo is the scientific name for the common toad
* Exuviae is the nymph shell that the dragonfly leaves behind
* A teneral adult is the first dragonfly adult stage
* A knot is a group of toads

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