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10 Bumpy Facts About Cane Toads

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Over the last 100 years, cane toads have become poster children for the world’s invasive species crisis. While the amphibian’s natural range stretches from Peru and the mid-Amazon region up through Central America, the animal has been deliberately introduced to Australia, New Guinea, Fiji, Hawaii, Florida, and several Caribbean islands. The toxic toads are like environmental wrecking balls, threatening native animals wherever they spread. But don’t write them off as villains just yet. Troublesome as cane toads are, they're also very interesting animals. Here are 10 facts about this pernicious amphibian.

1. CANE TOAD POISON WAS ONCE USED TO COAT ARROW TIPS.

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In his 2001 book The Cane Toad: The History and Ecology of a Successful Colonist, Christopher Lever writes that “the Choco Indians of western Colombia used to ‘milk’ toads by placing them in bamboo tubes over an open fire.” Concentrated poison trickled into a bottle, and the dangerous substance was smeared over arrowheads and blowgun darts.

2. THE BIGGEST ONE ON RECORD WEIGHED MORE THAN 5 POUNDS.

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According to Guinness World Records, the specimen in question weighed in at 5 pounds 13 ounces and was nearly 14 inches long from snout to vent. As a captive pet, it was able to grow much larger than most wild adults—the average cane toad only reaches 4 to 6 inches in length. Still, unusually big cane toads are sometimes encountered in the wild. Queensland’s all-time record-holder, for example, was just shy of 10 inches long and weighed 2.86 pounds.

There’s a notable male-female size discrepancy; female cane toads are usually larger. That's not where the differences between the two sexes end: Males also have rougher skin than their female counterparts. And the male toads are a noisy bunch, making an assortment of vocalizations including a chirpy “release call.”

3. AUSTRALIA IS NOW HOME TO ABOUT 1.5 BILLION OF THEM.

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The crops of Australia’s sugar cane growers had long been under attack by native beetles and their larvae, which devoured the roots of their valuable plants, when irate farmers convinced the government to launch a counter-offensive in 1900. That year, the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations (BSES) was established and immediately began looking for ways to bring the insects under control.

For decades, the BSES tinkered with various pesticides, none of which seemed to work. Then, in 1935, staff entomologist Reginald Mungomery brought over some amphibian reinforcements to eat the beetles. At the time, cane toads had been introduced to Hawaii and Puerto Rico—two places that were also struggling with beetles on sugar farms. Initially, it looked like the experiment had worked in both locations. Early (and questionable) reports indicated that, just as everyone had hoped, the amphibians were gobbling up unwanted insects in huge quantities.

Could they also bring an end to Australia’s larvae problem? The BSES figured that these toads at least deserved an audition. Mungomery was sent to Hawaii with instructions to round up some specimens for testing. Though he had serious doubts about the toads’ effectiveness against flying beetles, a captive breeding program was created in Australia. That August, 102 cane toads were unleashed in northern Queensland. Their numbers have absolutely skyrocketed since, and an estimated 1.5 billion now inhabit the land down under.

4. FEMALES LAY CLUTCHES OF 8000 TO 30,000 EGGS.

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A few days after a female cane toad lays her eggs, they hatch into tadpoles, a chapter in the life cycle that lasts for some four to eight weeks. The little swimmers are prone to cannibalism, and have been known to eat the eggs and tadpoles of other cane toads (they don't eat their own siblings, though). While the young amphibians can make short work of each other, anything else that tries to eat them is in for a bad experience: Both cane toad eggs and tadpoles are poisonous.

5. SOME PEOPLE TRY TO GET HIGH BY LICKING CANE TOADS (IT DOESN’T END WELL).

Don’t ever try this. When threatened, cane toads secrete a dangerous cocktail of chemicals, including one known as 5-methoxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine. People who ingest this material (usually by licking the amphibians) experience strong hallucinations and a full-body rush. Unfortunately, they also put their lives at risk. Side-effects of toad-licking include severely weakened muscles, intense vomiting, seizures, and death by heart stoppage. Please, keep your tongue away from the toads.

6. CANE TOADS WILL EAT DOG FOOD.

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These guys aren’t picky eaters, and they are happy to devour any creature that can fit into their mouths. In residential areas, cane toads are often seen climbing into dog food bowls and chowing down on the contents.

7. PRINCE CHARLES ONCE RECEIVED A UNIQUE, CANE TOAD-THEMED WEDDING PRESENT.

Cane toads' hides can be turned into a coarse, poison-free leather. Over the years, purses, keychains, and other novelty items made from this material have become quite popular with tourists in Australia.

The atypical leather has also gotten some royal attention. On July 29, 1981, Prince Charles exchanged vows with one Diana Spencer. To honor this occasion, the Australian Defense Department gave the couple a handsome book bound in the skins of four genuine cane toads [PDF].

8. INVASIVE TOADS ARE GETTING TURNED INTO HUMAN ENTREES.

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For reasons previously stated, you’ll want to keep live cane toads as far away from your mouth as possible. That said, if properly prepared, they’re actually edible. In recent years, chefs throughout Queensland and Australia’s Northern Territory have been conjuring up recipes that incorporate cane toad legs. These juicy treats may be sautéed, stir fried, or thrown into a nice salad. “It’s healthy foodstuff,” Philip Hayward, an island studies professor at Southern Cross University, told ABC. “We can severely reduce numbers… and at the same time have a healthy, economically viable product.”

9. THERE’S A CANE TOAD STATUE IN THE TOWN OF SARDINA, AUSTRALIA.

“Buffy,” as residents affectionately call her, commemorates the town’s sugar cane farmers. She began life in 1983 as a papier-mâché ornament on a float in that year’s Apex Sugar Festival. The model was then cast in fiberglass and moved to Broad Street in central Sardinia. This year, Buffy’s due to get a tall new platform that will also include plaques of local rugby stars.

10. CANE TOAD POISON MIGHT HAVE MEDICAL USES.

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Researchers at the University of Queensland have been assessing the medical benefits of this notorious toxin since 2010. In the process, they may have found a real boon for Australia’s economy. Experiments have shown that cane toad poison selectively kills cancer cells—while leaving healthy cells intact.

“We could process the [toxin] for medicine, ideally in a tablet because it tastes absolutely awful,” Dr. Harenda Parekh, a senior lecturer at the school of pharmacy, told the Guardian in Australia. Parekh notes that this product would be similar to chan su, a traditional Chinese medicine made with poison from the indigenous Asiatic toad that has been used to treat skin conditions, heart failure, and sore throats. Sadly, over-harvesting and pollution might soon put that particular animal at risk. Should this happen, poison from Australian cane toads may offer a viable alternative on the Chinese market. “The cane toad is a pest here to stay and we are fighting a losing battle against it,” explains Parekh, “but we could turn them into a lucrative export.”

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
10 Juicy Facts About Sea Apples

They're both gorgeous and grotesque. Sea apples, a type of marine invertebrate, have dazzling purple, yellow, and blue color schemes streaking across their bodies. But some of their habits are rather R-rated. Here’s what you should know about these weird little creatures.

1. THEY’RE SEA CUCUMBERS.

The world’s oceans are home to more than 1200 species of sea cucumber. Like sand dollars and starfish, sea cucumbers are echinoderms: brainless, spineless marine animals with skin-covered shells and a complex network of internal hydraulics that enables them to get around. Sea cucumbers can thrive in a range of oceanic habitats, from Arctic depths to tropical reefs. They're a fascinating group with colorful popular names, like the “burnt hot dog sea cucumber” (Holothuria edulis) and the sea pig (Scotoplanes globosa), a scavenger that’s been described as a “living vacuum cleaner.”

2. THEY'RE NATIVE TO THE WESTERN PACIFIC OCEAN.

Sea apples have oval-shaped bodies and belong to the genus Pseudocolochirus and genus Paracacumaria. The animals are indigenous to the western Pacific, where they can be found shuffling across the ocean floor in shallow, coastal waters. Many different types are kept in captivity, but two species, Pseudocolochirus violaceus and Pseudocolochirus axiologus, have proven especially popular with aquarium hobbyists. Both species reside along the coastlines of Australia and Southeast Asia.

3. THEY EAT WITH MUCUS-COVERED TENTACLES.

Sea cucumbers, the ocean's sanitation crew, eat by swallowing plankton, algae, and sandy detritus at one end of their bodies and then expelling clean, fresh sand out their other end. Sea apples use a different technique. A ring of mucus-covered tentacles around a sea apple's mouth snares floating bits of food, popping each bit into its mouth one at a time. In the process, the tentacles are covered with a fresh coat of sticky mucus, and the whole cycle repeats.

4. THEY’RE ACTIVE AT NIGHT.

Sea apples' waving appendages can look delicious to predatory fish, so the echinoderms minimize the risk of attracting unwanted attention by doing most of their feeding at night. When those tentacles aren’t in use, they’re retracted into the body.

5. THE MOVE ON TUBULAR FEET.

The rows of yellow protuberances running along the sides of this specimen are its feet. They allow sea apples to latch onto rocks and other hard surfaces while feeding. And if one of these feet gets severed, it can grow back.

6. SOME FISH HANG OUT IN SEA APPLES' BUTTS.

Sea apples are poisonous, but a few marine freeloaders capitalize on this very quality. Some small fish have evolved to live inside the invertebrates' digestive tracts, mooching off the sea apples' meals and using their bodies for shelter. In a gross twist of evolution, fish gain entry through the back door, an orifice called the cloaca. In addition expelling waste, the cloaca absorbs fresh oxygen, meaning that sea apples/cucumbers essentially breathe through their anuses.

7. WHEN THREATENED, SEA APPLES CAN EXPAND.

Most full-grown adult sea apples are around 3 to 8 inches long, but they can make themselves look twice as big if they need to escape a threat. By pulling extra water into their bodies, some can grow to the size of a volleyball, according to Advanced Aquarist. After puffing up, they can float on the current and away from danger. Some aquarists might mistake the robust display as a sign of optimum health, but it's usually a reaction to stress.

8. THEY CAN EXPEL THEIR OWN GUTS.

Sea apples use their vibrant appearance to broadcast that they’re packing a dangerous toxin. But to really scare off predators, they puke up some of their own innards. When an attacker gets too close, sea apples can expel various organs through their orifices, and some simultaneously unleash a cloud of the poison holothurin. In an aquarium, the holothurin doesn’t disperse as widely as it would in the sea, and it's been known to wipe out entire fish tanks.

9. SEA APPLES LAY TOXIC EGGS.

These invertebrates reproduce sexually; females release eggs that are later fertilized by clouds of sperm emitted by the males. As many saltwater aquarium keepers know all too well, sea apple eggs are not suitable fish snacks—because they’re poisonous. Scientists have observed that, in Pseudocolochirus violaceus at least, the eggs develop into small, barrel-shaped larvae within two weeks of fertilization.

10. THEY'RE NOT EASILY CONFUSED WITH THIS TREE SPECIES.

Syzgium grande is a coastal tree native to Southeast Asia whose informal name is "sea apple." When fully grown, they can stand more than 140 feet tall. Once a year, it produces attractive clusters of fuzzy white flowers and round green fruits, perhaps prompting its comparison to an apple tree.

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