Book Review: The Hidden Life of a Toad

By Claire Morgan, Volunteer Coordinator

Doug Wechsler’s children’s book The Hidden Life of a Toad (Charlesbridge, hardcover, 2017), released just this week, explores what happens in this mysterious process called metamorphosis – from eggs to tadpoles, tadpoles to toads. Amazing photos and descriptions walk you through this phenomenon day-by-day. Doug has witnessed the annual event of toad migration that takes place each spring at the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve, across the street from the Schuylkill Center, where they spend the winter in the forest. Each year volunteers gather for Toad Detour, a citizen scientists program to help the toads to safety cross the road, at Hagy’s Mill Road and Port Royal Avenue, to get to their spring breeding grounds. It is not unusual to see Doug on the ground focusing his camera and waiting for the perfect photo of the American Toad as they cross the road. As volunteer coordinator, I’ve spent the past six springs helping toads cross Port Royal Ave – and educating volunteers and the public about this Roxborough phenomenon. Still, I learned lots of things about the American Toad by reading this book!

We always knew some of the basics from watching toads come out of the woods and cross the road to get to the other side, which in this case was the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve. We knew they loved that shallow water in which to lay their eggs. We knew the males would often follow the females toward the breeding ground and sometimes catch a ride along the way by finding the female of their choice before crossing the road.

But the mystery that Doug Wechsler reveals is what happens after the eggs are laid. Usually, we can’t get a good look at what is happening inside those long strands of eggs. But Wechsler’s photos reveal it in incredible detail. Who would have thought that the arms almost pop out of their skins!

Wechsler’s photos nearly jump off the page of this book, much like the hopping toads. The cover shows a friendly-looking toad, his big bright eyes pulling you into the book. It’s as if he is saying, “Come find out what has happened to me in the past three years!”

Doug is no stranger to working with animals. Trained as a biologist with years of experience working at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Doug has a love for all animals. His photos have helped identify unusual butterflies, birds and of course toads. He built his own aquarium to get photographs of these rarely seen stages of development. Never before had I seen the gills on the outside of a tadpole or the hole in the skin called the spiracle. The time and patience to sit and wait, watching until each embryo wiggles, jiggles, and emerges as a tadpole is truly amazing. Photos of gills on the outside, mouths forming, tails forming, legs growing, toes forming, lungs developing, eyes bulging…. It’s just all so unreal to us humans.

I highly recommend this book for your children, but I also have to recommend it to any curious adult: expand your appreciation for this toad metamorphosis! Life is still a mystery.

About the author

Claire Morgan has been a member of the Schuylkill Center staff for over fifteen years. As volunteer coordinator Claire works with hundreds of dedicated individuals to connect them with opportunities to volunteer at the Schuylkill Center – from helping Toads cross the road to graphic design, assisting at events, and maintaining trails. More on volunteering here.

Families have the special opportunity to meet Doug Wechsler at a book signing and toad hike on Saturday, March 18.