Scientists recently took to Twitter to puzzle over an unusual sight captured by a biologist in photos and video: a toad that had no face.
The toad, a fully grown adult, had a healthy-looking body and legs, but it was entirely lacking eyes, a nose, jaws and a tongue. Instead of a face, it had only a stump covered by smooth tissue and a small opening where its mouth used to be, according to herpetologist Jill Fleming, who discovered the toad.
It "kept hopping into things," Fleming tweeted.
Fleming spotted the unfortunate creature — an American toad (Anaxyrus americanus) — in April 2016 in a state forest in Connecticut, where she was conducting research on Eastern red-spotted newts, she told Live Science in an email. [In Photos: The World's Freakiest Looking Animals]
"We sat down on a log to process the samples, and the toad kept running into our feet. When we looked closer, we realized it had no face!" Fleming wrote in the email.
Still puzzled by this find from 2016! An apparently “faceless” toad. Kept hopping into things. Had a small mouth hole- maybe esphogus/glottis (no maxilla or mandible, I think)? It was early spring so I think it must have come out of brumation like this. Any thoughts herp Twitter? pic.twitter.com/bFSLlakhs1— Jill Fleming (@salamander_jill) February 27, 2018
Fleming tweeted a photo of the faceless toad on Feb. 27; she suggested that it had probably recently emerged from brumation — reptile hibernation — looking this way. In the tweet, she invited her fellow herpetologists, or "herp Twitter," to consider what might have caused the animal's highly unusual condition.
Video of the toad showed it tentatively stepping over the forest floor, and there was no sign of a wound where its face presumably once was. However, Fleming explained that its facelessness was probably not the result of a genetic mutation, as the toad was missing a lot of the anatomy required for feeding and couldn't have made it to adulthood without being able to hunt.
Found the video. pic.twitter.com/cZJhDWEzOm— Jill Fleming (@salamander_jill) February 27, 2018
So, what happened to the toad?
Most likely, it was injured and then healed during brumation, awakening with the front of its head already gone, Fleming said. One possible culprit could have been infestation by flesh-eating toad fly larvae (Lucilia bufonivora), which consume toads' soft tissues and weaken their fragile bones, wildlife veterinarian Lydia Franklinos suggested in a tweet. Toads can become infested with these parasites when an adult fly lays its eggs in their nostrils or eyes, and things go downhill for the toad very rapidly after that, Franklinos told Live Science in an email.
"You will see extensive damage to the toad's face 48 to 72 hours after the eggs have hatched," she said.
The rest of the parasitized toad's body can remain relatively healthy. That's because the facial tissue is destroyed so quickly that the animal hasn't yet had time to develop signs of malnutrition, Franklinos wrote in the email.
A victim of hibernation predation
Another likely explanation is that while the toad was inactive during brumation, a predator discovered it and gnawed its face off, Fleming said. Turtles can also be victims of this "hibernation predation"; they are more likely than toads to survive such attacks, because much of their bodies is protected by their shells, Fleming said.
Many predators snack on toads in the northeastern United States, but the attacker of this faceless toad was probably a mammal, "since snakes and birds have a tendency to swallow things whole," Fleming said. Perhaps the toad's hiding place left its head more exposed than the rest of its body — and thereby vulnerable to attack — but it's impossible to say for sure, she explained. [Eye-Swallowing and Mouth Birth: Freaky Facts About Frogs]
Even if a portion of the toad's brain had been gobbled up along with its face, clearly enough remained to keep the toad hopping, as basic motor functions such as breathing and jumping can, in some cases, be powered entirely by an animal's brain stem, Emily Taylor, a professor of biological sciences at California Polytechnic State University, told Live Science in an email.
"The brain stem governs many of the central and necessary parts of the rest of our bodies, like heart rate, digestion and other functions. So, theoretically, the body can survive with only that part of the brain, even though the parts of the brain associated with consciousness, memory and decision-making are gone," Taylor said.
In fact, a chicken that was beheaded in 1945 famously survived — entirely headless — for 18 months, as its life-preserving brain stem had been left behind when the head was cut off, the BBC reported in 2015. The chicken's owner fed the headless bird liquid food and water with a dropper and kept its airway clear with a siphon, displaying it to stunned audiences on the sideshow circuit, according to the BBC.
"Judging from the photo on Twitter, this toad likely had more of its brain intact than the famous chicken," Taylor added.
The toad's unsettling appearance also invited comparison to the four-legged form of the faceless Demogorgon, the terrifying monster in the TV show "Stranger Things," Nick Caruso, an ecologist at the University of Alabama, pointed out in a tweet.
it can only be one thing pic.twitter.com/Isq6Q5B1vz— Nick Caruso (@PlethodoNick) February 27, 2018
Pre-hibernation fat reserves padding the toad's body were likely helping to keep the creature alive, Caruso added. But the hapless toad's chances of surviving in this condition were "really poor," and it likely wouldn't have lasted for very long after running into the researchers, Fleming told Live Science.
"It probably couldn't eat in this condition. Plus, it kept bumping into us, so if we were its natural predators, it would have been eaten very quickly," she said.
Original article on Live Science.