Added 3 August 2003. Last updated 30 June 2006: removed Pelodytes (Parsley Frogs) to their own page.

Frogs and Toads of Europe: Pelobatidae, Spadefoot Toads

The Pelobatidae are an older family of anurans, belonging to the order Archeobatrachia ("old" or "ancient" frogs). Today they are found in North America (including Mexico), Europe, North Africa and West Asia, and other parts of Asia (including China and the Philippines) and the Indo-Australian archipelago.

Pelobatidae are distinguished by their toad-like appearance, a relatively large head with prominent eyes, and in the Pelobates species, a metatarsal tubercle that is usually enlarged and so formed as to resemble a sort of spade (hence the common name "spadefoots"). This tubercle is quite sharp and used for digging the toad backwards into hiding below the surface. Two other characteristics which help to externally distinguish the family are the lack of both parotid glands and typanum (the round ear found in most anurans). As a rule these are shy creatures which normally are only found moving around at night. All of them are usually found in areas of sandy soil.

NB Unlike the pages for the other Reptile and Amphibian families, where measurements were given in inches or feet, measurements for the families here are given in centimetres, owing to the generally small size of the subjects.

Either click on a frog or toad in the Quick Links section or scroll down for the whole table.

Pelobates fuscus, Common Spadefoot Pelobates cultripes, Western Spadefoot Pelobates syriacus, Eastern Spadefoot

Scientific Name Common Name Distribution Size Notes
Pelobates fuscus Common Spadefoot France east to Siberia: not Iberia 8 cm One of the most widely distributed toads in Europe. Despite its clumsy appearance the Common Spadefoot is an agile mover on land and a good swimmer. Being nocturnal and something of a digger, it is not encountered widely but is actually fairly widespread. The Spadefoot will bury itself in dykes, loose forest soil and even tilled fields and gardens, although the best place to find them is around shallow ponds in low-lying country at night. The toads bury themselves at light, often to a depth of 1 metre. Diet consists of insects, worms and molluscs. The aquatic phase of this toad is April-June, but it leaves the water as soon as the eggs have been laid. Males make guttural sounds during breeding. The females lay several thousand eggs each in the form of wide gelatinous bands. At a maxiumum of 18 cm, the tadpoles are the largest in Europe. Like many amphibians the Common Spadefoot can secrete a defensive substance from its skin glands if threatened (eg picked up!): this apparently smells like garlic. It will also squeak in protest.
Pelobates cultripes Western Spadefoot W. France, Iberia 10 cm The Western Spadefoot and Eastern Spadefoot differ from the Common Spadefoot mainly in their sizes and the shape of the "spade" (growth to aid digging, hence the common name of the genus) on the back of the hind leg. Otherwise see above for natural history.
Pelobates syriacus Eastern Spadefoot Balkans, W. Asia 8-10 cm?


Collins Field Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians of Britain & Europe, E N Arnold, J A Burton and D W Ovenden, HarperCollins, London 1978. For years this has been an invaluable guide to the English speaker, although a few of the taxonomic details were in need of revision. This was finally accomplished with the revised edition of 2002/4.

Lurche und Kriechtiere Europas [Amphibians and Reptiles of Europe], Dr Wolf-Eberhard Engelmann, Jürgen Fritzsche, Dr sc. Rainer Günther and Dipl.Biol. Fritz Jürgen Obst, Ferdinand Enke Verlag, Stuttgart 1986. A German-language equivalent but with a rather wider definition of Europe which includes the Transcaucasus, and useful details on the distribution of subspecies. Now apparently out of print.

Die Amphibien Europas, Andreas and Christel Nöllert, Franckh-Kosmos, Stuttgart 1992. Outstanding nature guide to every species of amphibian found in Europe.

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