I’ve been rewarded, over and over again, by the answers evolution theory delivers to some of the most relentless questions I have about the world.
How did dogs/salamanders/tardigrades/lichens become so awesome? What do algae/catfish/coyotes/larvae have to do with me? What does it mean to the world that I can talk/run/set stuff on fire? Why do I feel this way when I hear a good story/see my wife turn just so in sunlight/high-five my daughter?
Some friends of mine tell me scientists annoy them because scientists think they know everything. But this isn’t true. Jackwagon chuckleheads think they know everything, and even though some scientists are jackwagon chuckleheads, this makes them suck at being scientists. Though I’m not a scientist, some are my friends; not knowing stuff is what gets them out of bed in the morning.
My favorite parts of reading about the science of evolution are “the controversies,” which is a way of saying “questions that scientists can’t answer yet.” I love reading about these questions, because the answers always end up being so much more awesome than I could have guessed.
Case in point: feathers. What the heck, feathers? What are you and where did you come from? A widely read National Geographic article by Carl Zimmer introduced me to the difficult and contentious inquiry into where feathers came from and how they evolved. This is a good example of a really hard question whose answer was more amazing than I would have predicted. Where did feathers come from? Get this: dinosaurs.
Every so often when someone puts a shovel in the ground (or a bulldozer, or a blasting cap) they uncover a fossilized dinosaur. Recent Chinese expeditions have been turning up spectacular evidence of the evolution of feathers. The fossilized bones and tissue impressions that are being catalogued and interpreted from these finds are painting a picture that’s so interesting and so full of surprises. It’s becoming increasingly clear that chickadees and velociraptors share a lineage that is filled with amazing and delightful experimentation with feathers of many forms and functions. In fact, more different kinds of feathers and proto-feathers sprouted from the skin of extinct dinosaurs than exist on all the birds in the world today.
Outrageous and beautiful surprises like this unfolding story are common in evolutionary explanations. Evolution reveals truths that make the world more and more marvelous and wonderful. I’ve come to trust the wonder of the world more and more through every set of unresolved questions. I’m increasingly confident that, if these controversies are resolved, the world will look more wonderful than it did before.
I’m starting to think this is having a cumulative shaping effect on my psychology. I think I’m becoming more and more confident about the unanswered questions in my life. What are the meanings of my decisions? How will I come to understand my relationships and community over time? How can my emotions and my capacity for reason cooperate to make me a good human being? Consistently surprising and delightful answers to my questions about the shape of living things are training me to anticipate wonderful stories and explanations for questions about the shape of me. Evolution isn’t trying to help make me a more hopeful person. And yet I think it is helping me anyway.
Attentive readers may recall that a little more than a month ago I returned from Toad Patrol with a picture on my camera that surprised me:I shot this on the front stoop of my neighbor Ted’s porch. Ted saw me with my flashlight in front of his house at about 10 p.m. and came out to chat. While we were talking, I noticed a small toad hopping along the cement step by my feet, so I stooped down quickly, snapped the picture, and continued our conversation. It was almost a reflex, and I certainly didn’t look very closely at what I was photographing. The next morning I was shocked to see a toad like I’d never seen before.
Here in Western NY state, pretty much all we have is Bufo americanus, the beloved American Toad. B. americanus is highly variable in coloration and pattern of spots and “warts.” But dark purple? Pink belly? Bright yellow feet? Jet black eyeballs? What kind of toad could this be?
I returned to Ted’s yard afterwards every every night around 10 p.m. hoping for another encounter. Toads can reappear nearby good hunting grounds (like under Ted’s porch light), but they also roam and I had no way of knowing how far this toad may be roaming. We had a couple of nights where the temperature dropped to around 35˚F. It wasn’t raining much. Also, Ted’s yard fronts a road that, while not especially busy, is the scene of daily amphibian traffic fatalities. And a Garter Snake was lurking around the front walk, fattening up for the coming winter.
It was against these odds that one rainy evening 12 days later I looked down and spied an especially dark toad about the size I was looking for. I scooped it up and was thrilled to be gazing into the obsidian marble eyes of Eugenia, the Black-Eyed Toad.
This is the name my 4 year old daughter has settled on, because the toad lives with us now. Eugenia (I don’t really know the animal’s sex) has spent the last couple of weeks settling in to a habitat we constructed as a family project in a 20 gallon aquarium tank. Quite nervous and timid at first, Eugenia seems to have now settled in to her new space, hopping out of the soil to enjoy a shower of water from a mister bottle or her daily meal of wood lice and earthworms.
I’ve never kept a toad for more than a couple of weeks at a time, let alone throughout the winter, so I’ve been consulting with My Friend the Biologist (MFtB) about how to keep our tenant healthy and happy. I plan to take many more photos this winter as she becomes more accustomed to being handled, as well as letting amphibian experts take a closer look to unravel the mystery of her beautiful and atypical color.
Melanism is a mutation common enough among most organisms. It’s a condition of extra pigment in an animal’s skin, fur, feathers, or scales. There are often one or two black furred Gray Squirrels in my neighborhood’s local population, and you can find beautiful melanistic variations of many animals online.
Below are a few early photos, shot quickly because people have been asking about this toad. You can see that quick snapshots show slightly different details depending on what kind of light they are shot in and how wet or dry Eugenia is. When I have time to set up more controlled shooting conditions, I will post more. For now I’m intrigued by her comparatively low “wartiness” and the way the pink color of her skin shows through the darker patches under certain lighting. Her eyes are the prettiest aspect of all – she has an apparently normal pupil, but the surrounding area normally filled with Bufo’s gorgeous gold and bronze filligree is simply a flat black color.
So far her behavior seems normal for Bufo americanus. She seems able to spot, pursue, and consume her prey with ease, and she’s an exceptionally strong hopper – stronger than many toads I meet in fact. She has a habit of moving about very quickly, leaping up onto high perches (tall stones, sticks, the rims of buckets) and clinging there in the balanced way reminiscent of treefrogs. A lovely amphibian to be sure, and I’m looking forward to getting to know her better with the help of MFtB.
Click the below photos for a closer view…
As far as toad species goes, pretty much all we have around where I live in Western NY state are Bufo americanus. I’m not complaining, this is a species with variable coloration and a pleasant disposition, and one of my favorite neighbors. I spend a lot of time on Toad Patrol enjoying its company.
Despite the variety of color patterns, body size, and interesting behavior that you can find among toad populations, I’ve never before come across a toad like this one, which I photographed in a friend’s front yard the other night:
Dark coloration, with an almost purple hue, and low bumpiness. The underside shows nearly pinkish. Most striking are the eyes, which lack the brilliant gold flecks and shine of all other toads I’ve encountered. My biologist friend is stumped as well, suspecting a possible gene mutation that effects a pigment change in the skin.
Bufo americanus is most typically colored in shades of brown and gray, but it’s not unusual to find a wide variety of colors from tan to black to paler yellowish and orangeish shades. I also really enjoy some of the truly beautiful patterns of blotches and stripes that can appear. Rarely you see some white toads with a condition called leucism, which removes all pigment from an animal, either in patches or overall. But the particularities of this unique fellow are new to me and so I’ve been digging around online to try to learn about this variation. I’m very interested in hearing what others may think!