Stanley Ball and the Vanishing Spadefoot

Stanley Ball (1885-1954) holding a spadefoot toad.
New Haven Register, April 21, 1933.

“Yale Naturalist Unduly Alarmed,”
Ansonia Sentinel, December 21, 1933.

 

Yale Naturalist Unduly Alarmed” — This was the headline in the December 21, 1933 edition of the Ansonia Sentinel. The naturalist in question was Peabody curator Stanley Ball. His alarm was on behalf of a small native amphibian, the Eastern Spadefoot Toad.

Ball believed a population of the toads in Ansonia would be put at risk by a proposed drainage project. Moreover, he foresaw that rapid suburban development propelled by the broader availability of automobiles was putting habitats for wildlife species such as spadefoot toads at great risk. Published in 1936, Ball’s monograph on the spadefoot toads of Connecticut remains one of the most important studies of the species in its northern range.

Media coverage of Ball’s research and concern on behalf of spadefoot toads reflected then prevailing public atitudes about wildlife. Residents near his study sites, who described the noise from a spadefoot chorus as sounding like “a locomotive laboring up a long hill,” seemed ready to see them disappear.

Spadefoot toads are named for the small tubercle, or spade, on the bottom of their hind foot, which they use to dig into sandy soil.

 

The Eastern Spadefoot Toad (Scaphiopus holbrookii) is a remarkable animal by almost any measure.

“The uproar caused by several hundred of these animals at the height of their breeding activity is truly astonishing. The blasts emitted by some of the larger ones…were veritable detonations.” — Stanley Ball

Spadefoots may live for a decade or more, spending most of their lives buried up to several feet underground. While buried, they have the ability to greatly decrease their breathing and heart rate — scientists have estimated that they can probably survive up to two years without eating. When they emerge in the spring following hard rains, the males begin singing to attract females to breed.

Within as little as two weeks after egg-laying, the tadpoles metamorphose into insect-sized toadlets that leave their breeding pond in one mass movement. After feeding on the surface for several weeks, spadefoots bury themselves to wait for the next spring.

This map from Stanley Ball’s notes shows the Hotchkiss Pond site as it existed in 1933.

The aerial photograph shows the Hotchkiss Pond site as it is today (the red circle is the location of the home shown on the next page). While the layout of the streets is recognizable from Ball’s map, the pond basin is entirely replaced by homes and lawns.

 

It turns out that Ball was “duly alarmed.” Today the Eastern Spadefoot Toad is listed as endangered within the state of Connecticut and is currently known from just a handful of locations. All of the populations Ball studied are extinct.

Most, like the Ansonia population, depended on breeding ponds that were filled in and eventually covered with housing developments. Ball’s research notes and the specimens he collected provide a critical historical record of a once widespread species that has been largely displaced from a rapidly changing landscape.

In addition to his natural history studies on amphibians, birds and other animals, Ball was also an early conservation practitioner. In the 1940s he was state chair for the Committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions, an organization that eventually became The Nature Conservancy. Ball put his concerns into conservation action by removing toads from locations where they were doomed by development and moving them to a rural property he owned in East Haddam. These efforts represent the earliest known transplant experiment on behalf of amphibian conservation.

Top: This photograph taken by Stanley Ball in 1933 shows the basin of Hotchkiss Pond just after spadefoot toads had metamorphosed and the pond had dried.

Bottom: The gambrel roof house in this present-day photograph is the same one marked with a red circle in the historical photograph above and on the previous page.

 

Ball would be back to record the final year during which successful breeding is known to have taken place at the site. Ball kept extensive, detailed notes on the natural history of the populations he studied. As was expected of the best naturalists of his generation, he was also an accomplished illustrator.

Hotchkiss Pond is now gone, the site having been re-graded and covered with homes. Most local residents are unaware of the history of the site.