Political correctness breeds success for non-sexist toad

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Britain's most politically correct animal is flourishing, thanks to its New Male way of life.

Britain's most politically correct animal is flourishing, thanks to its New Male way of life.

While more unreconstructed amphibians are struggling to cope with the disappearance of countryside ponds, the midwife toad is expanding rapidly - and experts attribute part of its success to the non-sexist role of the males. They "stay at home", carrying the spawn, and leave the female free to take other mates and produce more young. As a result, the midwife's numbers are expanding dramatically. Introduced from France to Bedford in 1904, it has moved to outlying villages and is now found in the neighbouring counties of Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire, as well as Norfolk and Sheffield. Herpetologists believe there are thousands of colonies, many with hundreds of toads.

Meanwhile, the midwife's more stick-in-the-mud rivals are suffering a dramatic decline in numbers. Most of them rely on ponds, and in some parts of the country farmers have replaced 99 per cent of ponds with standpipes and troughs. Intensive farming has also removed hedgerows and coppices, important for shelter. The natterjack toad is particularly at risk, while the pool frog became extinct in 1998.

By contrast, the lifestyle of the midwife - alytes obstetricans - gives it an edge. The male carries the egg-strings wrapped around his hind legs, keeping them warm and humid. When he senses the eggs are about to hatch, he makes his way to the edge of the pond and deposits the nascent tadpoles.

This means the spawn is protected from sudden frosts, which might kill the spawn of toads that leave their eggs in the water to mature. It is also better equipped to cope with unpredictable weather patterns associated with global warming. The male's taking on of ante-natal duties leaves the female free to seek other mates and reproduce twice as often as rival species.

Helen Muir-Howie, of the Bedfordshire Natural History Society, which monitors the species in its stronghold colonies, said: "The midwife toad is flourishing. They make sure the eggs have the best chance of survival by keeping them out of frosts and away from the mercy of the elements. They seem to invest a bit more care in reproduction than other species."

The exemplary behaviour of the midwife toad does not stop there. His mating techniques also appear to be a cut above those of other amphibians, relying on the quality of his croak - a distinctive bleep, which has been likened to the noise of the hour pips on the radio - to attract a partner. The midwife toad is also a good neighbour: unlike other introduced species, such as the grey squirrel, it does not appear to be aggressive and seems to happily share its habitat.