Tell-tale toads take to reclaimed land

(Article written for Suncor Energy employee publication)

Like the canary in the coal mine signaling air quality, frogs and toads move in when an ecosystem is healthy.

“To most people, toads may not be the ‘sexiest’ wildlife species out there,” says Leo Paquin, reclamation co-ordinator at Oil Sands. “However, we’re definitely encouraged that we’ve provided habitat on our reclaimed areas for a species that’s provincially and federally listed as endangered.”

He explains, “Unlike most frog species, Canadian Toads don’t require water year-round. These toads mostly use water in the spring for breeding purposes and then move inland for the remainder of the year. The closeness of the wetlands to the reclamation site led the experts to speculate that the Canadian Toads were using the reclamation site to hibernate.”

This led Suncor to hire Golder Associates’ wildlife team during 2005 to investigate the movement of the Canadian Toads. They accomplished this using tiny radio transmitters placed on small belts fastened around the waists of the toads. During 2005, Golder found, tagged and electronically tracked 10 Canadian Toads, and then tagged another 29 in 2006.

A tale of 10 toads

It’s not easy to get a transmitter on a toad. “They are very good at avoiding predators, and that makes them next to impossible to find,” says Shanon Leggo, wildlife biologist for Golder. “You can’t rely on your eyes; you don’t see them unless they blink even when they’re right in front of you.”

The researchers patrolled the margins of the wetlands with a small spotlight and a dip-net at night, when males were calling. Once they found a toad, one person held its legs straight while the other slipped the transmitter on. The researchers attached the transmitters in the spring and removed them once the toads began to burrow into over-wintering sites.

Oil Sands employees felt a connection to the original 10 toads after a contest to name them. “We wanted to refer to each of them as something other than ‘toad one,’” says Leo, whose daughter suggested Jeremiah, after the lyrics in the song Joy to the World (it starts “Jeremiah was a bullfrog…”).

The transmitters showed that Suncor activities didn’t bother the toads, who were often tracked to areas close to roads, equipment lay-down spots and even the Upgrader plant site.

Golder found more toads (more than 50) near one pond on reclaimed land than ever recorded at a single pond in the boreal forest. The nearby Suncor dykes and berms also support healthy toad populations, as do Crane Lake and the nearby duck pond. All sites surveyed also show evidence of boreal chorus frogs and wood frogs.

The toads tell the tale: Suncor’s reclaimed wetlands and tailings pond dykes are a great place to call home. As for Jeremiah and friends, the toads are no longer tagged, so it’s impossible to say whether are still on the hop. We like to think so!

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