Two years ago, graduate student and herpetologist Jill Fleming was collecting data on Eastern red-spotted newts in a Connecticut forest when she spotted something strange: a faceless toad.
The adult American toad, or Anaxyrus americanus, seemed otherwise healthy but sported what looked like a stump for a head. As Fleming tells Mindy Weisberger for Live Science: "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!"
The mystery has perplexed her ever since. And last week, she took to Twitter to find answers. Fleming posted a photo of the toad and asked experts to weigh in on what might be going on.
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
Without eyes, a nose or a tongue, the toad's front end was fully covered by smooth tissue, with only a small opening where the mouth should be. Fleming captured the toad on video hopping around.
In her tweets about the image, Fleming suggested that it had probably recently emerged from brumation, a term used for the hibernation-like state some animals enter during cold weather.
It's unlikely the toad's facelessness is the result of a genetic mutation, Fleming explains to Weisberger. If the toad were born without a face, it probably wouldn't have survived this long—it couldn’t have made it this far in life without being able to hunt, after all.
Others chimed in. Wildlife veterinarian Lydia Franklinos suggested that the faceless toad might have been subject to an infestation of toad fly larvae, which eat away at soft tissue. This can happen when the fly lays eggs in a toad’s nostrils or eyes.
But Fleming has her own ideas about what happened. In an email to Smithsonian.com, she says that the toad was likely injured by a predator during hibernation and healed before becoming active again in the spring.
“Herpetology Twitter had some great input on possible explanations for the faceless toad! I had not considered the possibility of toad fly parasitism before. However, I still lean towards the predator theory to explain the faceless toad,” she says.
Toads are often victims of a range of predators in the northeastern United States. But since snakes and birds would have likely swallowed the critter whole, Fleming tells Live Science the creature responsible for the faceless toad was likely a mammal.
Live, faceless animals are definitely an oddity, but there have been a few other cases. Just last year, Mental Floss reported that deep-sea scientists found a faceless fish in the Australian abyss. And as one Twitter user pointed out, a chicken survived for 18 months after being beheaded in 1945.
Tom Smulders, a chicken expert at the Centre for Behavior and Evolution at Newcastle University, told BBC News Magazine in 2016 that the chicken's survival wasn’t that unusual. While the chicken’s beak, face, eyes and an ear were cut off, Smulders estimated that up to 80 percent of the chicken’s brain remained intact, and that was what controlled the body, heart rate, breathing and digestion.
Something similar likely happened with the toad, Emily Taylor, a professor of biological sciences at California Polytechnic State University, tells Live Science. Though its face was attacked, enough of its brain was kept intact to allow for basic functions like breathing and jumping.
"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 tells Weisberger.
Flemings tells Smithsonian.com she didn’t have Twitter when she first saw the toad two years ago, but it was time to put this curiosity to rest.
“After seeing how active herpetologists are on Twitter, I thought it would be a great place to get help in answering this question that has bugged me for two years,” she says.