‘The Champion of ugliness’

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117872887013221.jpg’, ‘Photo from Naturalist on the Nanticoke by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘The toadfish is “The Champion of Ugliness.”‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117872882031063.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of www.chesapeakebay.net‘, ‘The toadfish is a small species rarely exceeding 18 inches in length and one weighing more than a pound is rarely seen. It has a large, flat grotesque head that occupies two-thirds of the body.‘);

To most people the catfish is the least attractive of all fish. But, to those who live along the coastal areas of the United States, the toadfish, sometimes called, among other uncomplimentary terms, oyster toad or oyster cracker, wins the prize for ugliness. In a beauty contest, the toadfish is sure to be crowned “The Champion of Ugliness?”

The toadfish is a small species rarely exceeding 18 inches in length and one weighing over a pound is rarely seen. It has a large, flat grotesque head that occupies two-thirds of the body. The skin is scaleless and is covered with mucus producing glands, which make it difficult to handle. The toadfish is found in shallow water along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coastlines.

It is dangerous to handle a toadfish with the unprotected hand, as there are sharp spines, located on the dorsal fin and on the edges of each gill cover. The spines are hollow like a hypodermic needle and are connected to a venom gland. The poison is injected directly into the victim and causes intense pain for some time. If one is sensitive to the venom, nausea and dizziness may result.

Strong muscles are attached to the jaws, and many believe the fish is capable of cracking an oyster shell to get at the succulent meat inside (hence the nickname of oyster toad or cracker). I once made the mistake of placing my thumb inside the mouth of a toad, while disengaging a hook, and the beast immediately clamped down on it with a viselike grip. The only way to free my finger was to decapitate the fish and pry open the jaws with a screwdriver. Fortunately, though the mouth is lined with numerous teeth, they are small and dull.

Oyster reefs or bars are home to numerous small animals that many species of fish utilize as food. For this reason, a wise fisherman drops his hook over an oyster reef, and frequently, to the angler’s disgust, a toadfish is hooked. Toads also like to set up housekeeping on an oyster reef because they prefer to deposit their eggs in empty shells, and there are always plenty of unused shells on a reef.

Many believe the flesh of the toadfish is poisonous and would not eat one if he was starving. The truth of the matter is the toadfish is perfectly edible and relished by many who know the poisonous rumor is nonsense. Some natives of the eastern shore of Maryland make a toadfish chowder or prepare a toadfish for the table in other ways. I can attest personally that battered, fried toadfish is delicious, and I have suffered no physiological upsets from eating it many times. I would guess that if some of the venom associated with the hollow spines should become associated with the meat that is prepared for the table, it becomes denatured by the heat generated in the cooking process. The venom, like the venom of other animals) is undoubtedly proteinacous in nature, and proteins are denatured by heat.

A very unusual thing about toadfish is their ability to produce powerful sounds that are used in the spawning ritual. The sounds are produced by the heart-shaped swim bladder that is lined with numerous, red muscle fibers. When the fibers contract and relax, the shape of the bladder is changed, and sounds are produced. It is reported that sometimes a person outside of the water can hear these sounds made by a toad beneath the surface. A booming foghorn-like sound is produced followed by a series of grunts and growls. One researcher decided to measure the intensity of a toadfish’s sounds and swam down into the fish’s environment. He reported that he was almost deafened when he ventured too close to a toad. He calculated the intensity of the sounds to be in the neighborhood of 100 decibels, about to the intensity made by a jackhammer or a subway train passing at full speed past a platform.

Toadfish are territorial and will aggressively defend the portion of the bottom to which they have laid claim. I suspect the poisonous spines and sounds strong enough to rupture an intruder’s eyeballs deter any possible enemies.

Though a toadfish may be considered ugly and dangerous to man, I feel sure it appears beautiful to another toadfish.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

from the May 2-8, 2007, issue

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