Eastern Spadefoot Scaphiopus holbrookii

Description: Adult Morphology: A stocky brown or gray frog with small dorsal warts. Individuals often have yellow stripes extending posterior to the eye. The underbelly is white to gray in coloration. Spadefoot pupils are vertical ellipses which distinguishes them from other "toads" in Indiana (spadefoots are often referred to as toads, but are taxonomically distinct from true toads). Spadefoots have dark, calcified tubercles ("spades") on their hind feet from which they derive their name.

Size: Spadefoots grow to around 2 in (50 mm) total length.

Larvae: The tadpoles are small and speckled with orange, and the tailfin is clear. The larval stage in this species is very abbreviated.

Eggs: Females lay eggs in long bands up to a foot in length.

Similar Species: The body form and coloration of this anuran make it quite distinct from the other frogs and toads in Indiana. Eastern spadefoots are the only anurans in Indiana with elliptical pupils.

Distribution: Eastern spadefoots occur through the southeastern United States, north into New England along the East Coast. Their distribution in the Midwest is patchy with isolated populations occurring in suitable habitat.

Due to their explosive and irregular breeding patterns, undocumented spadefoot populations are still be discovered in Indiana. Formerly, this species was known from only a handful of scattered populations in southern half of the state, but recent records indicate that Indiana spadefoot populations are tied to floodplain habitat along the White, Wabash, and Ohio Rivers in southern and western Indiana. Spadefoots occur from Posey County along the Wabash River to Terre Haute (Vigo County) and north into extreme southern Parke County. Along the White River, they are found from Knox and Gibson Counties into Bartholomew County just south of Columbus (East Fork) and northward into Owen County (West Fork). Spadefoots are known from a few sites along the Ohio River from Posey County to Floyd County. Here they breed in typical flooded low areas, but also in atypical habitats in the karst plains such as sinkholes and relict barrens.

Activity: Spadefoots are burrowers and are typically seen only when they are above ground during major breeding events. Juveniles, and occasionally adults, may be active on rainy summer nights, presumably foraging. Spadefoots occasionally turn up in window wells and in suburban yards following wet weather.

Breeding Season: Spadefoots are explosive breeders that may reproduce anytime from March to July following heavy rains. Breeding congregations are associated with substantial rain events and breeding may not take place in dry years. Conversely, multiple breeding events may occur in a single season during wet years. The eggs hatch shortly after deposition and the young transform and disperse within a week or two of hatching.

Taxonomy: The eastern spadefoot (Scaphiopus holbrookii) is the only species in the family Scaphiopodidae that occurs in Indiana. This unique family of anurans is generally well adapted for dry, desert-like conditions, and is more diverse in the central and southwestern United States. Contrary to the popular belief that these are "toads," they are not closely related to the bufonid toads that are more common and widespread in the state. In fact, the term toad is often used to describe any anuran whose body form is "toad-like" (warty and stout, often moving in slow deliberate hops).

Ecology: Habitat: This species is found in areas with well-drained soil; usually low, sandy areas and often in the secondary floodplain of large rivers. Spadefoots have also been found in low, open areas with loose soil in the absence of sand. In Indiana, spadefoots appear to tolerate a wide range of habitat modification and may be abundant in and around low farm fields as well as in suburban neighborhoods. In the past, these areas were probably a mosaic of mature bottomland forests and sand prairies. During the short period of time when breeding occurs, spadefoots may be found at night in large numbers crossing roads or actively moving around in yards and fields. Spadefoots use the calcified "spades" on their hind feet to dig downward from a sitting position. In loose soil, they can dig down and conceal themselves within seconds.

Diet: Spadefoots feed on a wide variety of invertebrates, but they have a preference for larval lepidopterans (moth and butterfly caterpillars) and, to a lesser extent, ground-dwelling beetles.

Reproduction and Life History: Since spadefoot breeding is explosive, the timing of breeding varies substantially with annual weather patterns. Over the course of one or two nights after heavy rains, large numbers of these frogs emerge from the ground and gather at temporary pools where breeding takes place. After hatching, the tadpoles must develop and transform in a short period of time as the pools used for breeding will dry rapidly. Reproductive success appears to be sporadic with some years resulting in no recruitment of juveniles and others resulting in thousands of juveniles emerging from a single pool.

Call: Spadefoots have a loud nasal call that resembles the "whank" call of a young crow.

Conservation: It is difficult to assess the long term stability of spadefoot populations because of their erratic breeding. Their use of disturbed sites including flooded areas in cultivated fields and suburban lawns suggests that spadefoots may have a higher tolerance for habitat disturbance than other anuran species. However, a study in Florida found that spadefoots were unable to burrow into grass sod, and had difficulty burrowing into gravelly or heavily saturated soils. The study concluded that spadefoots were unlikely to adapt well to rapidly urbanizing environments. In Indiana, surveys have been conducted to monitor known populations and find new breeding sites. This species was formerly considered a species of Special Concern in Indiana, but has since been delisted due to the discovery of many new populations in recent years.


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Distribution Map
Distribution map of Eastern Spadefoot (Scaphiopus holbrookii)