October: Oyster Toadfish: A Success at Parenting

Chesapeake Almanac Podcast Episode and Transcript

Episode 31
Copyright © John Page Williams, Jr. all rights reserved.

This is John Page Williams with another reading from "Chesapeake Almanac." The month is October and this chapter is entitled "Oyster Toadfish: A Success at Parenting."

A couple of close friends taught me at an early age how to take an oyster toadfish off a fishing line: grab the animal by the lower jaw with a pair of pliers; cut out the hook; and drop the ugly thing back overboard, saying something appropriate about how nasty it was. Oh, yes, and on the way, jab the point of the bait knife down between its eyes, in hope of reducing the population.

Both friends are now retired Virginia clergymen of distinguished reputation and gentle manner; one of them my father. Stabbing anything is out of character for them, but there just didn't seem to be any use for toadfish back then, except to steal bait from proper fish like spot and croakers and trout. It's interesting to look back on that time from the perspective of a more modern ecological consciousness. One of those two friends (my father) happened to read several years ago that toadfish exercise very highly developed parental skills, and he's been downright solicitous of them ever since. I won't say that he'd rather catch one than a three-pound trout, but they're certainly intriguing.

Most of us learn about toads by catching them on hook and line. They start taking our baits when they reach the size of three inches or so. They can grow up to 15 inches, though anything over 12 is exceptional. They are ugly, or at least interesting looking. A toad's head is wide, with brown and yellow mottled skin that is scaleless and wrinkled, with flaps hanging off it. Eyes are large and bright, and the powerful jaws are broad with a single row of sturdy teeth top and bottom. It's not an inviting mouth. The body is stocky, with long, soft-rayed dorsal or back fin and ventral or belly fins, and a round caudal fin (that's the tail). The pectoral fins on the sides behind the gills are large and rounded. At the front of the dorsal fin and along the upper edge of each gill cover are short, poisonous spines that can cause painful punctures. Toadfish should be handled with care.

Oyster toads range from New England to Florida, but all populations are local. Toads are not migratory beyond moving to deep water in winter and back to shallower water in summer. Dispersal of the species, even up and down the coast, must have been a slow process.

The animal is a lurker and an ambush feeder. Males prefer to hide under oyster shells, in wrecks, and under any kind of bottom debris they can find. Literature written some years ago mentions that females and young toads stay in eelgrass and widgeon grass beds most of the summer, but the disappearance of those grasses in some areas has sent them to deeper water or else to man-made structures. In either habitat, the species' mottled color pattern helps as camouflage. Expandable color sacs in the skin, called chromatophores, help individuals adjust to their surroundings, an ability they share with a number of other Bay fish. Toads feed aggressively on small oysters, clams, and various other crustaceans, small fish, worms, and decayed material. Their own flesh is reasonably tasty. I have eaten it myself. But they're awkward to fillet and skin, and the yield is small, so few people ever try them.

What is most remarkable about oyster toads, beyond the variety they add to the bottom community of the Bay, is the above-mentioned system of parental care. The male stakes out a territory where he has found a den of sorts, made of shells or timber or what else might whatever else might be lying there. One good example is the remains of the old railroad bridge, the old Baltimore-Annapolis railroad bridge in the Severn River near Annapolis. The male sounds a plaintive foghorn-like call to attract a female, who lays their eggs upside-down on the roof of the den. Toad eggs are very large as fish eggs go (that's a quarter of an inch in diameter), with adhesive discs that hold them in place. The male fertilizes them and the young develop where they are until their yolk sacks are absorbed and they are ready to swim and feed on their own.

The fact that the eggs never have a planktonic or drifting stage further limits geographical spread of the species. The process of growing in place may take three or four weeks. The male stays on guard, leaving only occasionally to feed. Spawning takes place in the Chesapeake from April to August, so the last fry of the season don't become free swimming until around Labor Day. After that, the male shepherds them for nearly another month. Male toads then are busy running nurseries from early April till early October.

It's easy to be anthropomorphic about the role reversal, but the truth is that toads don't think about such things. They've simply developed a reproductive system that works for them. Unlike many other fish species, male toads grow larger and live longer than females. In a system that relies on thorough care for a relatively small number of eggs, the larger parent is the more effective domestic.

The strategy is very different from that of fish like Atlantic menhaden, whose females broadcast huge numbers of eggs on the tides and never see them again. Judging by the menhaden and toadfish populations, both strategies do the job. It's a moot question to try to decide which is better. Each one fits its species' niche.

What is a toadfish's purpose on the Bay? That's an anthropomorphic question, too. The fish don't have much direct value to us. They're here because they've developed a niche that gives them a good living. No amount of stabbing will make them disappear. They may have faces that only a father toad could love, but my father's right. Their success at what they do deserves respect.

For more happenings around the Bay in October see our other Chesapeake Almanac podcasts and read our blog post "Leaf Peeping from the Water in October."

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