SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN August 1990, pages 11-12.

Bufo Abuse

A toxic toad gets licked, boiled, teed up and tanned

Plump, greenish-yellow and pebbly in texture, it is not much to look at. It can be nuisance, too, poisoning dogs and squishing noisily under automobile tires. But Bufo Marinus, also known as the cane toad, has become an international celebrity of late, inspiring drug-war hysteria in the U.S. and trade talks in the Far East. Here is its tale, warts and all.

This large toad - some attain the girth of Frisbees - once lived quietly in the warmer regions of the Americas, ranging as far north as central California. In the 1930's it was exported to Australia in an attempt to control beetles infesting cane fields (hence its common name). Like many amphibians, B. Marinus wards off predators by secreting a toxig goo from glands in its skin. The secretion contains a compound called bufotenine, which resembles the neurotransmitter serotonin and also occurs in certain toadstools and plants. Although these bufotenine-containing substances can be lethal, they have reportedly been used as intoxicants by some "primitive" societies.

Intrigued by these accounts, U.S. researchers synthesized bufotenine and began testing it in humans - along with many other psychoactive drugs - in the 1950's, according to Stephen Szara, chief of the biomedical branch of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. These investigators, he says, hoped to gain insights into schizophrenia and other mental disorders. The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency also supported the work as part of an effort to develop brainwashing agents.

In one experiment, researchers injected bufotenine into four inmates of an Ohio prison. The prisoners experienced hallucinatory effects "reminiscent of LSD and mescaline" as well as nausea and chest pains, the scientists reported in the May 18, 1956, issue of Science. The investigators also observed that "if the color of an eggplant were diluted, it would approximate the unique purple hue of the faces of the subjects." These side effects, Szara says, discouraged further studies of bufotenine - of an official nature.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration outlawed bufotenine in the late 1960's. Ironically, the DEA's action inspired a few people to try licking live toads, says Darryl S. Inaba, director of drug programs at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic in San Francisco, ground zero of the 1960's drug culture. But these adventurers became sick rather than high, he adds, and toad licking never caught on.

For the past two years, however, newspapers have been filled with lurid accounts of cane toad abuse. In April, 1988, USA Today reported that Australian "hippies" were "forsaking traditional drugs for cane toads, which they boil for a slimy, potentially lethal cocktail." Although Australian authorities have denied the story, it apparently primed the media for more. A few months later Inaba gave a lecture on drugs in which he mentioned - for comic relief, he says - the rare 1960's practice of toad licking. Soon reporters all across the world were calling to inquire about "crazed hippies licking toads in the mountains," says Alex Stalcup, director of the clinic.

Inaba and Stalcup assured the reporters that there is no evidence that anyone is ingesting toad secretions - an assertion that law-enforcement officials confirm. "It's not anything the Drug Enforcement Administration is worried about," says Cornelius Dougherty, a spokesperson in Washington, D.C. But the story persisted. "Toads take a licking from desperate druggies," exclaimed the New York Post this past January. "How low will people stoop to get high?" sneered the Santa Clara (California) Press Democrat.

Inevitably, reality imitated fiction. Last year, Stalcup says, two teenagers in New Mexico ingested cane toad toxin after reading stories about the "fad" and had to be hospitalized. An Australian youth died after eating cane toad eggs. "This rumor has caused a lot of misery," Stalcup says.

Meanwhile Australia is coping with other toad-related problems. Cane toads have become so abundant in the northeast of the country that they have driven out indigenous amphibians and have poisoned other wildlife and pets. Some dogs have even become compulsive toad lickers, according to Glen Ingram, a herpetologist at the Queensland Museum. "It gives them a kick, perhaps like alcohol," he explained to a newspaper. Angry Australians have organized "toad eradication" outings; golf clubs and cricket bats, while officially frowned on, are the favored instruments of execution.

Yet the citizens of Brisbane may have found a silver lining in the toad glut. They recently persuaded China, whose traditional medicines include compounds from other Bufo species, to explore the therapeutic potential of B. marinus venom. In April Brisbane's Office of Economic Development shipped 100 grams of the stuff to the Shanghai Industry Foundation. Other Brisbanians are marketing products made of toad leather. Although single toad skins are somewhat small, says Mark C. Underhill of the development office, they make "quite attractive" wallets, purses and even outerwear if artfully sewn together. If you can't lick them, join them.

- John Horgan