8 Types of Toads Found in California! (ID Guide)
“Don’t pick that up, you’ll get warts!”
If you’re anything like me, you heard this quite a few times growing up from a parent telling you to leave a toad alone. With their bumpy skin, staring eyes, and loud, insect-like calls, it’s understandable to be cautious around toads. But luckily, it’s a myth that toads give people warts!
Today, you will learn about the different kinds of toads in California.
A note on this list: Some of the species below are considered spadefoots, which are not technically toads. Spadefoots are a separate group of frogs that are closely related to toads. Because they are similar in so many ways, I am including them here. If you see a spadefoot, you may not even realize it’s not a true toad! I will outline the differences between toads and spadefoots later in the article.
#1. Western Toad
- Anaxyrus boreas
- Adult length is 2-5 inches.
- Coloring can range from yellowish, tan, gray, or green with a pale stripe along the back. The Western Toad also has dark blotches with rust-colored edges and warts.
- Males have smoother, less blotchy skin than females.
As its name suggests, the Western Toad lives in the western part of the continent. It has a wide range of habitats, including desert streams and springs, forests, lakes and rivers, and backyard gardens with pools nearby.
Western Toad Rangemap:
Female Western Toads can lay up to 16,000 eggs at a time! They lay their eggs in long strings in shallow water.
Unlike many other toads in California, Western Toads don’t often hop!
Instead, they walk, picking up 1 or 2 legs at a time. You can see this unique movement below!
The Western Toad has a distinctive call that can be described as a high-pitched chirrup or chattering. Choruses of Western Toads tend to sound like flocks of geese in the distance. Click here for an example!
#2. Yosemite Toad
- Anaxyrus canorus
- Adult length is 1.75-2.75 inches.
- Coloring in females is pale with many black and tan blotches, similar to a cheetah print.
- Coloring in males is brown to dull gold, with smaller dark brown spots.
The Yosemite Toad is ONLY found in the Sierra Nevada region of California.
It lives in high mountain meadows and on the borders of forests and emerges from hibernation soon after the snow melts – or sometimes while it is still on the ground!
Yosemite Toad Rangemap:
It is well-adapted to its mountain habitat, which is often cold and snowy for much of the year. You can easily recognize a Yosemite Toad if you happen to see it crossing a snowbank because it will “tip-toe” across to avoid touching its abdomen to the snow!
One of the most interesting features of the Yosemite Toad is the difference in coloring between males and females. They are the most dichromatic toad species in North America! As you can see in the photos above, females are much darker with a more prominent pattern, and males are pale gold and slightly smaller.
#3. Black Toad
- Anaxyrus exsul
- Adult length is 1.75-3 inches.
- Coloring is nearly solid black with scattered white flecks and lines.
- The belly is white or cream with numerous dark splotches.
The Black Toad is ONLY found in a small portion of California!
It lives only in marsh grasses formed by spring water, with dry surrounding areas. It is a highly aquatic toad, preferring to spend most of its time in the spring-fed pools in its habitat.
In Buckhorn Springs, California, ranchers allow controlled grazing of the Black Toad’s natural habitat, which is beneficial to the species! The cattle remove vegetation that prevents the spring pools from filling and leave droppings that attract flies for the Black Toad to eat.
#4. Great Plains Toad
- Anaxyrus cognatus
- Adult length is 2-4 ½ inches.
- Coloring is pale white to tan or olive with large, dark-colored pairs of blotches down the back. Lighter tan or white belly.
- A crest on the head forms a “V” shape from the snout, moving outward on the head toward the back.
Great Plains Toads are found in southern California, living in temporary shallow pools, quiet streams, marshes, or irrigation ditches. They are most common in grasslands but also can be found in desert brush and woodland areas.
Great Plains Toad Rangemap:
There are only a few weeks out of the year suitable for the Great Plains Toad to feed and reproduce. Amazingly, they spend the rest of the year mostly dormant in underground burrows made by other animals.
Symmetrical dark splotches running down its back make the Great Plains Toad one of the easier toads to see, but you will probably hear one nearby long before you can spot it. Its call can last more than 50 seconds, and is similar to a jackhammer!
When large groups of Great Plains Toads are calling, the sound can be near-deafening.
#5. Red-Spotted Toad
- Anaxyrus punctatus
- Adult Length is 1.5 – 3 inches.
- The coloring of the Red-Spotted Toad is light gray, olive, or red-brown, with distinctive red or orange warts. The belly is white or buff.
- Red-orange warts are numerous and cover the entire top of the body, including legs and feet.
The Red-Spotted Toad is very recognizable in southern California.
Just look for the many red or orange warts set against the pale coloring of the rest of its skin! They can be hard to find though, because they are mostly nocturnal, spending their days in rock crevices or underneath plant debris.
Red-Spotted Toad Rangemap:Credit: U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior/USGS
Red-Spotted Toads can survive losing up to 40% of the water in their bodies!
They commonly live around rocky outcroppings with temporary water from rain-fed streams or underground springs.
The call of a Red-Spotted Toad is a high-pitched trilling that lasts about 10 seconds.
#6. Woodhouse’s Toad
- Anaxyrus woodhousii
- Adult length is 2 ½-4 inches.
- Coloring ranges from gray to yellowish or olive green.
- The belly is light tan or buff with very few dark spots located on the chest.
Woodhouse’s Toads are adaptable to many environments in California, including grasslands, deserts, floodplains, and developed areas. Interestingly, individuals that live in suburban areas will wait under street lamps to catch and eat insects attracted to the light.
Woodhouse’s Toad Rangemap:
The most striking feature of Woodhouse’s toads is their shape – they are round and stout, with short legs that look too small to support their bodies!
Woodhouse’s Toads have a very short call that resembles a distressed sheep’s bleat.
#7. Arroyo Toad
- Anaxyrus californicus
- Adult length is 1.5 to 3.5 inches.
- Greenish gray in color, with uniform warts and a light stripe across the head.
- Short and stocky in shape with a rounded abdomen.
The Arroyo Toad can ONLY be found in southern California, in a very specialized habitat.
Arroyo Toad Rangemap:
It prefers exposed streams with quiet, slow-moving water, nearby trees, sandy soil and terraces, and overflow pools. That’s quite a list of requirements!
Unfortunately, due to its complex habitat needs, it is susceptible to habitat loss from human development. As a result, the Arroyo Toad is extirpated (regionally extinct) in much of California, and its remaining numbers are still dwindling.
The Arroyo Toad’s call is musical and high-pitched, ending abruptly after 8-10 seconds.
#8. Colorado River Toad
- Incilius alvarius
- Adult length is 4-7 ½ inches; the Colorado River Toad is the largest toad native to North America.
- Very large glands on either side of the head produce its powerful venom.
- Coloring is dark brown or olive to gray, with smooth skin and few warts located on the hind legs.
The Colorado River Toad has a reputation as the “Psychedelic Toad”!
Its venom is illegally harvested and used as a hallucinogenic drug, and it is even classified as a controlled substance. It is also dangerous to most animals, and large dogs who accidentally eat them have been known to be paralyzed or even die from the poison.
Colorado River Toad Rangemap:
Though not widespread, they have a large population throughout the desert and mountains of southern California.
The call of the Colorado River Toad lasts under a second and has been compared to the whistle of a ferryboat.
In California, laws and regulations have been put in place to prevent the use of the Colorado River Toad’s venom as a drug. For example, it can’t be moved across state lines, and if a person is found in possession of one with the intent to use its venom as a drug, they can be arrested or fined.
There are a few main differences between toads in California, listed above, and Spadefoots, listed below.
Spadefoots have vertical pupils like a snake, while toads have horizontal pupils.
Their skin is much smoother and has very few or no warts.
Their back feet have bony, sharp spades used for burrowing into soil, sand, or loose gravel.
#9. Great Basin Spadefoot
- Spea intermontana
- Adult length is 1 ½-2 ½ inches.
- Coloring is gray, olive, or brown with an hourglass-shaped marking on the back.
- The spade on the hindfoot is wedge-shaped.
In northeastern California, it is common to find Great Basin Spadefoots in sagebrush flats or woodland areas. They can also be found in spruce and fir forests at higher elevations.
Great Basin Spadefoot Rangemap:
Great Basin Spadefoots breed after spring and summer rains in temporary and permanent water, including lakes, streams, and drainage ditches.
Interestingly, the Great Basin Spadefoot emits a peanut-smelling odor when handled!
The call of the Great Basin Spadefoot is a low-pitched and hoarse sound, similar to the quacking of a duck. It lasts about a second and is repeated over and over as the male calls to attract females during mating.
#10. Couch’s Spadefoot
- Scaphinopus couchii
- Adult length is 2 ¼-3 ¾ inches.
- Coloring is greenish-yellow to light brown, with irregular dark brown or black splotches that sometimes form a weblike network.
- Spade is sickle-shaped and black.
In southern California, the Couch’s Spadefoot lives in shortgrass prairie and desert brush. It eats many insects, including beetles, grasshoppers, and ants.
Couch’s Spadefoot Rangemap:
Couch’s Spadefoots spend much of the year burrowed underground to avoid the hot and dry climate where they live. In fact, they can eat an enormous amount of food during the short rainy season and may not come aboveground for more than a year if the weather remains too dry.
The main defense of Couch’s Spadefoots is a toxin that is powerful enough to affect humans.
If handled, the chemical can cause sneezing and watery eyes!
The call of the Couch’s Spadefoot can be compared to the bleat of a lamb, starting out higher pitched and dropping lower at the end. It is short, lasting about a second.
#11. Mexican Spadefoot
- Spea multiplicata
- Adult length is 1 ½-2 ½ inches.
- Coloring is uniform brown or gray, with scattered dark spots tipped in red.
- Spade is wedge-shaped.
In southern California, the Mexican Spadefoot has a wide range of habitats, from grassland to pine forests. It prefers loose, sandy or gravelly soil for burrowing.
Mexican Spadefoot Rangemap:Credit: U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior/USGS
The main defense of the Mexican Spadefoot is a secretion that can cause a runny nose and watery eyes, making it a risky snack for predators.
The Mexican Spadefoot’s eyes are a unique copper color with black flecks, which makes it look like a cat’s eye marble!
When calling to attract mates, Mexican Spadefoots emit a metallic, vibrating sound that lasts about 1.5 seconds.
#12. Western Spadefoot
- Spea hammondii
- Adult length is 1.5-2.5 inches.
- Coloring is dusky green to gray, with 4 irregular, light lines on the back.
- Spade is wedge-shaped & glossy black.
The Western Spadefoot can ONLY be found in California!
It lives primarily in lowland areas along the coast but can also be found less frequently in foothills and mountain areas. Western Spadefoots prefer open vegetation and sandy or gravelly soil.
Due to land development and mosquito abatement, over 80% of the Western Spadefoot’s habitat has been lost. Despite these threats, the species is especially hardy, and its population is not currently threatened.
The call of the Western Spadefoot is very short and hoarse, similar to a snore. It only lasts about one second. Western Spadefoots call to attract females while they are floating in the water!
Do you need additional help identifying toads?
Try this field guide!
Which of these toads have you seen in California?
Leave a comment below!
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