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Horny, confused cane toads are humping a python, says biologist

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Those cane toads pictured riding on the back of a python in Australia were actually blind with lust, says an amphibian expert.

“You can see all of these male cane toads lined up along the snake sort of grabbing it, hoping, desperately hoping, that it is a female frog,” Jodi Rowley, a biologist at the Australian Museum in Sydney, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

“It’s a bunch of overly excited male cane toads trying to mate with a female cane toad — but they’ve got it wrong,” 

The photo of 10 yellow cane toads “hitching a ride” on the snake’s back in Kununurra, Western Australia, has been shared thousands of times on Twitter.

The bizarre scene was filmed by Paul Mock on Sunday night after a heavy thunderstorm caused a lake to overflow and sent local wildlife feeling for higher ground.

“Thousands of toads were all trying to find somewhere to go,” Mock told the BBC. “And then I saw Monty our local python with a bunch of hitchhikers on his back.”

Cane toads hump indiscriminately 

But when Rowley saw the picture, she immediately knew it was nothing so innocent.

Male cane toads, she said, are notoriously horny after a big rain fall.

They hang out in groups, she said, waiting for the much rarer female cane toads to show up. When they spot a female, they instinctively leap onto her back and hold tight.

“They really just want to make sure that as soon as that female shows up, they’re the one that gets it,” she said. “So they have such a reflex to grab onto things.”

But in their desperate frenzy, the toads have a tendency to latch onto anything and everything — including inanimate objects, human feet and other male toads and amphibians of the wrong species.

“I have personally seen … cane toads trying to mate with a rotting mango as it floated in a bit of water. So that was an interesting one. And there was a bit of competition for that rotting mango,” Rowley said.

“I’ve actually picked up a frog before and they’ve been so keen that they’ve tried to mate with my hand.”

‘Really strong forearms’

The python, Rowley said, was likely powerless against the toads’ desires.

That’s because the males have “really strong forearms” and it’s hard to shake them off. 

Jodi Rowley is an amphibian biologist from the Australian Museum in Sydney, Australia. (Stuart Humphreys/jodirowley.com)

“They’ve got a bit of a grip on that poor snake and there’s nothing that snake can do except for wait until they realize their error and get off on their own accord,” she said.

“In a correct circumstance, the male will grab onto the female frog and he has to hang on because she will take him to where she wants to breed.”

Stranger than fiction 

The python can’t exact its revenge on the toads by eating them for dinner, either. Cane toads are not native to Australia, and are poisonous to most local predators, Crowley said.

Rowley’s explanation for the viral photo flies in the face of the uplifting narrative about a deadly predator helping out its amphibian neighbours during hard times. 

But she said she’s glad for the opportunity to explain the often ill-fated mating rituals of cane toads. 

“It’s even better, I think. It’s good to have things corrected. It’s good to have the scientific facts, you know, the explanations about what is actually happening,” she said.

“Because the truth is often just as cool, if not cooler, than the fiction.”

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Jodi Rowley  produced by Ashley Mak.

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