Since we are working so hard to rid the world of toads and regain habitat for native frogs, it would be tragic if ID mistakes resulted in the culling of any of our amazing native frog species. This page will help you learn about the differences between native Australian frogs and cane toads at all life-stages and should help you to make a positive ID when you are out toad-busting.
Frogs and toads are amphibians along with newts and salamanders, which means they need a moist environment to survive. This doesn’t mean they need to live in the water, but they do need to be near it for two very important reasons;
- Amphibians ‘drink’ through their skin
Amphibians have permeable skin which absorbs water. They don’t necessarily need a pool of water to stay hydrated but they do need a moist environment full of water particles to absorb. Amphibians also lose water through their skin so they can easily dry out if they cant find moisture. Ground frogs and desert frogs will burrow to find and absorb moisture.
It is not just water that passes through amphibians’ skin but gasses too. Amphibians breathe by taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide through their skin. Permeable skin makes amphibians very vulnerable to pollution, pesticides, and other chemicals such as chlorine. You should avoid handling frogs in case your hands have perfumes, creams, soap or other toxins on them and you should install a wildlife float in your pool so that frogs can escape.
- Amphibians eggs need to be kept moist
If amphibian eggs dry out they will die so they must be laid in a damp environment. Most amphibians lay their eggs in water, although there are some that will lay them in trees, on land or even attach them to their bodies and rely on a moist environment to keep them alive.
There are over 230 frog species in Australia and they are the only amphibians that are native to this continent. Although there are some species of native frog that have ‘toad’ in their name, they are not true toads and Australia has no native newts or salamanders.
Toad spawn or frog spawn?
Toad spawn forms into long jelly strings which come to rest under the water. Female cane toads will lay between 8000 and 35,000 eggs in one clutch and may lay up to 2 clutches per year. The mother coats the eggs in toxin for protection making this a highly toxic life-stage. The eggs are short-lived and will hatch after around 3 days, so if you see them in the water, pull them out!
Most frog spawn forms into lumps of jelly or foam. Most frogs lay their eggs in the water, among vegetation although some will lay their eggs in trees or on land. Frog egg clutches are much smaller than that of toads, ranging from just 16 for the Corroboree frog to nearly 4000 for the Bleating tree frog. Hatching times vary between species from a couple of days to a couple of weeks.
Cane Toad eggs
Toad tadpole or frog tadpole?
Quick ID bullet points
Cane toad tadpoles
- Jet-black in colour
- Congregate in large swarms, in the warm shallows, in the sun in the heat of the day
- Fairly short tail compared to body length and compared to native frog tadpoles
- Eyes on top of their head
- Great variety of colours and patterns; beige, brown, green, black, spots, stripes etc
- More solitary than toad tadpoles, may be seen in the company of a few other frog tadpoles
- Don’t swarm in the heat and sun, prefer the shade, deeper water and vegetation
Cane toad tadpoles are pretty easy to identify due to their behaviour. They will swam together in a big family group with their siblings, in the shallows where the water is warm. They love the sun and will be seen basking in the heat of the day at the water’s edge and on rocks. Toad tadpoles are jet black with an opaque sheen to their belly and they will grow to about 3cm in size. They have black tails surrounded by opaque frill which makes their tails appear quite slim. Their eyes are placed on the top of their heads which makes them quite bulky in appearance. In contrast, most frog species have eyes on the sides of their heads.
Unlike toad tadpoles, frog tadpoles don’t swarm. There will be far less of them and they are more solitary. They don’t bask in the sunny shallows as cane toad tadpoles do but potter around looking for food among water plants. They come in a variety of colours ranging from browns to greens and beiges and will sometimes have spots or striped patterns. They come in a variety of shapes with some appearing big and bulgey and others slim and dainty. Some of them will look similar to cane toad tadpoles like the spotted marsh frog tadpole which is a chocolate brown colour, almost black, so make sure you pay attention to small details.
Small toad or native frog?
If you are new to the amphibian world, this can be the hardest stage to be ID confident in. However, once you get more familiar with cane toads and native frogs, you will find that you are able to tell them apart quite easily. The main thing you need to be aware of at this life stage is that many Australian frogs are quite small, so fully grown native frogs can get confused with baby cane toads.
Quick ID bullet points
Small cane toads
- Paratoid glands on the back of their necks, behind their eyes
- Horizontal pupils like goats and an angry expression due to their strong brow
- Brown, beige or grey with stripes and often orange spots or a straight line down the middle of the back
- Upright posture, awkward lurching movements, don’t climb
- Seeing regularly during the day and at night
Small frogs or froglets
- Big variety of colours, shapes, sizes and patterns, skin textures
- Majority can jump high and are quite springy
- Most have a flatter posture than toads
- Most have beadier eyes and a cuter expression
- More active at night, don’t much like the sun
Small cane toads come in a variety of colours and patterns. When they first leave the water their skin will be black and smooth and when they are a little older, their skin will get rougher and become more colourful. They will generally be grey, beige or brown and usually have some stripes, as in the picture above. The vast majority with have orange spots on their backs to begin with, but these will fade. Another common marking is a line down the middle of the back. Not all little can toads will have this line and beware as some native frogs have it too such as the Striped marsh frog. They have horizontal pupild and their expression appears bad-tempered due to their strong brow. Even at this age, you will be able to see their parotoid glands on the back of the neck, behind the eyes; these glands are where toads excrete their powerful toxin from. Where you find one small toad, there will be many. You will see them just about everywhere but they particularly love to hang around the water’s edge, lawns, grass verges and edges and rockeries where you will find them at all hours of the day and night. They are fast and cautious of humans but you should be able to get much closer to them than small frogs. When sitting still they tend to sit up straight and when they move they lurch around in a gangling movement which is less streamlined and graceful than a frog. They don’t climb, and can’t jump very high compared to frogs.
Young frogs or small frogs such as the Common eastern froglet in the picture above come in a great variety of colours, shapes, sizes and patterns. Frogs within the same species can even vary greatly from one another (just as cane toads can) so sight along is not usually a reliable ID technique, you really need to hear the calls. However, once you know what you’re doing, you should be able to easily differentiate between a cane toad and a frog. Behaviourally, frogs are very different from cane toads. Most can jump much higher and are much more springy than toads. The majority of them can climb high and stick to things. If will be quite difficult to get close to them and sudden movements will spook them. You are much more likely to find frogs at dusk and during the night although you will see them in the day sometimes, particularly if it is overcast or rainy. Frogs posture is usually quite different. They will be flatter or poised, ready to spring. They mostly have wider, beadier eyes and are much cuter in expression and appearance than toads. You will occasionally find a native frog under a rock, under ground or anywhere in the environment that may look similar to a toad so you must pay attention to the smaller features. A number of threatened frog species are similar in appearance to cane toads so if you are unsure, please leave it alone. Leaving one extra toad in the environment is less damaging than removing a native frog.
Small cane toads
Adult cane toad or native frog?
As there are over 230 different species of native frog in Australia, the best way you learn to learn to tell them apart from cane toads is to become really familiar with cane toads and what they look like.
Quick ID bullet points
- Visual features – see below
- Hibernate during winter (approx. June – September)
- Most active at dusk and during the night
- Shelter in shrubs, rockeries, under houses, under leaf litter and other derbies and tunnel under the ground during the day
- Will be found everywhere but especially lawns, bushland, easily accessible shallow water and under lights. Basically anywhere where there is ample insects and water for breeding
- Generally sit upright in posture
- Lurching, awkward hops forward and can jump quite high, but not as springy as most frogs and can’t stick to surfaces and climb
During winter, cane toads hibernate and you won’t see very many. The ones you do see will be lethargic, sickly and slow and most likely small. They will come out of hibernation when the warmer weather stabilises and will emerge from their day-time hiding places at dusk. They love lawns, patios, anywhere where there are plenty of insects, so they are often found near houses and streets where there is night-time lighting.
They spend most of their life on land and will go down to the water to breed. They like easily accessible, still water so they love dams, ponds, flood-plains and slow running creeks. If the water is difficult to access, ie, surrounded by thick vegetation, they are less-likely to make the effort. Females will make their way to the water when they become gravid and males will call out to females from the water to tell them they are ready to mate.
The images above are all cane toads and demonstrate how varied their appearance can be in terms of colour, pattern and physique. You will notice that their expressions’ appear angry due to their ridged brows and they have horizontal pupils. Most are sat upright and you can see their marbled bellies. The parotoid glands are clearly visible on each toad, regardless of size, shape and health.
Frogs that may look similar to cane toads
Below we have profiled some native frog species that live around the Gold Coast and that may be confused with cane toads. If you look closely and take note of their features you should be able to identify that they are frogs and not cane toads. You will notice that some of these species are marked as CWS (City-wide significant), V (vulnerable) or E (endangered), so it is super important that people don’t make ID mistakes when removing cane toads from the environment. All pictures are property of City of Gold Coast
Useful websites, phone apps and books
I cannot stress how great this app is! Frog ID is a citizen Science program started by the Australian Museum. It has several great features that will help you to ID frogs. Firstly, it has a ‘near me’ function, which shows you all the frogs that are found in your area. You can click on each frog for photos, information and to listen to call recordings. Secondly, it encourages you submit your own frog call recordings for ID using their in-app recorder.
Contains a wealth of information about different types of frog species
An excellent resource by City of Gold Coast which will help you ID local frogs as well as giving guidance on how to create frog habitat.
This is definitely the best book our there on frog and tadpole ID, described as ‘the most comprehensive and thorough treatment of a continental frog fauna that there has ever been’. Includes detailed information and photographs of Australia’s frog species from egg to adult. It’s quite expensive but there are 3 available in Gold Coast Libraries.
Detailed information on frog species from all over Australia