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Common Toads Aren't So Common Anymore

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Christian Fischer via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

If the global decline of honeybees has taught us anything, it’s that even the most commonplace, ordinary species are vulnerable. Researchers working with the “Toads on Roads” project now report that populations of common toads are shrinking in the UK and Switzerland. They published their findings today in the journal PLOS One.

The common toad (Bufo bufo) may look rugged, but it’s actually quite fussy about certain things. Mating, for instance—they only want to do it in the ponds where they were born. This typically necessitates a mass migration from their adult territories. Like crabby toddlers, the toads require routine. They’ll follow the same paths back to the pond year after year, hopping around new housing developments and across roads if they have to.

This does not always go well for them—but they’re not totally alone. Volunteer corps of amphibian sympathizers have existed since the 1950s, forming patrols by the side of busy motorways to carry warty would-be lovers to safety. One group, Froglife, has been running its “Toads on Roads” program for more than two decades, helping tens of thousands of amphibians each year. 

It’s an incredible volunteer network. And if you’re a herpetologist, it’s also a pretty excellent source of population data. All you have to do is organize survey nights and hand out plastic buckets.

The researchers behind the current study pulled toad migration statistics from Froglife and other pro-toad volunteer groups from 1975 to 2014 in the UK and from 1973 to 2012 in Switzerland. They knew that most of the toads caught and recorded would represent just part of the whole population—namely, the adults—and used those numbers and what they knew about toad life cycles to estimate how large each population was. They looked at 153 populations in the UK and 141 populations in Switzerland. 

The numbers were not encouraging: Researchers found that since the 1980s, toad numbers in both countries have gone down quickly and continuously. Within a few years, if these trends continue, the so-called "common toad" could qualify for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List, which identifies species on the brink.

“The fact that toad abundance significantly declined across both countries since the 1980s even at sites where there was an obvious and long-term conservation action in place, (i.e. moving individual toads across the roads by volunteers) is troubling,” the authors write.

The precise causes of the toads’ decline are not completely clear, although the scientists did find a thoroughly unsurprising relationship between urbanization and toad population decline. Traffic and automobile density have greatly increased in both countries over the last 30-plus years; in the UK alone, they've doubled. The toads are also up against some very familiar issues: habitat loss, disease, and climate change.

“While significant conservation improvements have recently been achieved for some endangered species,” the authors conclude, “common species, including amphibians, are still rapidly declining in Europe, largely unnoticed due to lack of resources for monitoring and despite the fact that such species have a disproportionate impact in providing ecosystem function and structure.” 

Want to roll up your sleeves and get in on the toad-saving action? If you live in the UK, visit the Froglife website and look for a toad patrol near you. Live elsewhere? Check out your local wildlife center or conservation organization and see if they need help.
 

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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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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