It’s toad time in the Sonoran Desert, the season when Incilius alvarius, popularly the Sonoran Desert toad—also the Colorado River toad or locally “the toad”—pops out of its underground burrow at the first hint of rain from the North American monsoon.
Like the tall-armed saguaro cactus and the lumbering desert tortoise that are both native to this desert, these toads “are an intrinsic part of the region,” says Robert Villa, president of the Tucson Herpetological Society and a research associate at the Desert Laboratory in Tucson.
“They characterize the Sonoran Desert just by existing,” he said. “If they disappear, we would become bio-culturally impoverished.”
Though the Sonoran Desert toad is not currently in danger of extinction, they are increasingly threatened by climate change, human expansion, and pollution, says Villa.
But Villa knows all too well, as spokesman for the herp society’s “Save the Toads” education campaign, that Incilius alvarius is facing a more immediate danger to life and limb.
Poachers, for recreation and profit, are seeking out the toads for what they carry in their bodies—5-MeO-DMT, a powerful psychotropic compound.
A desert native
One of the largest toads in the U.S., up to seven inches from snout to webbed foot, with a Jabba the Hutt-like countenance, the toads emerge to eat and breed as the wet summer unfolds, heading for water wherever they can find it in ponds, rivers, streams, irrigation ditches, puddles, cattle troughs, spas, swimming pools, or golf courses.
Nocturnal, they frolic with fervor, honking and croaking into the night. Then, as the monsoon flattens in September and the toads are fortified for the year with food and kin, they head back to their lairs.
It is a cycle that has been repeated for thousands of years across large swaths of the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix south to Tucson and into northern Mexico, an area vast and empty with no sure way to quantitatively track or estimate their numbers, except by sight and anecdote.
Yet they’re increasingly being caught by poachers, locals, and visiting fans seeking a natural high found in the toads’ parotid glands.
What makes the desert toad psychedelic?
5-MeO-DMT is so mind-blowing that some call it “the God gene” of enlightenment. Others describe it as a “ride on a rocket ship into the void”—or the most frightening experience they’ve ever had.
Cultural interest in the toads and its psychoactive properties began in the 1960s, rose again in the 1990s, and tapered off until about 2017, when the toad reemerged in the media. Villa played his part, to his distress, by being a consultant on a Vice TV docuseries that year on hallucinogens in general.
Today, there are pricey retreats in Mexico, where 5-MeO-DMT is administered to be curative, emotional, spiritual, or simply for the high. Celebrities weigh in with rave reviews, inspiring others to try.
5-MeO-DMT is legal in Mexico, where the majority of poaching has been reported, but not in the U.S., where it’s listed as a Schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency. In Arizona it is also illegal to grab the toads without a fish or game license.
The allure of the toad for its psychoactive properties is complicated by the fact that 5-MeO-DMT is currently being studied as a possible treatment for depression and anxiety, much like the encouraging research on peyote and psilocybin mushrooms.
But those are plants. Incilius alvarius is an animal.
Do psychedelic poachers pose an existential threat?
“The toads are out now,” confirms Thomas Weaver, curator of HIIZ (Herpetology, Ichthyology and Invertebrate Zoology) at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a renown zoological and botanical garden and research organization. Weaver saw the toads cavorting on a recent evening in the museum’s parking lot in the desert west of Tucson, attracted by the lights and the bugs.
“If anything happens to amphibians, we’d be overrun by insects,” he jokes, but he’s dead serious.
Amphibians are an “indicator species,” Weaver says, explaining that creatures like Incilius alvarius are so well-tuned to the environment “they’re like sponges, picking up changes in the water and in the air.”
Weaver’s concern is that poaching the toads could tip the dominoes for a species that is entering an unknown future as its habitat heats up and drought conditions in the Southwest continue to worsen. He is also rightfully concerned about the “global amphibian crisis” that threatens the extinction of up to “40 percent of our amphibians worldwide within the next 50 to 100 years.”
On top of that, an invasive fungus, Chytrid, is spreading globally. If one toad with Chytrid made its way into a toad community, the entire “knot” could be wiped out, Weaver warns.
“My concern is that this trend in collecting, smuggling and harvesting the toads may have an impact on the species as a whole,” he said.
Why not use synthetic DMT?
As the popularity of 5-MeO-DMT rises, the question now is about the ethics of animal use, especially when there is an alternative synthetic version of the drug.
Poaching is a violent act. To get 5-MeO-DMT, the hunter goes to the source, scoops the toads into a bag, then takes them somewhere for “milking,” which is the process of squeezing the two pea-sized glands on the toad’s neck to drain the milky white intoxicating substance. When dried, it is either smoked or inhaled.
And the toad? Who knows? While milking itself doesn’t harm the toad physically, “it does cause the animal stress,” says Villa, and it’s quite unlikely it will find its way home.
“I tell people that if they want 5-MeO-DMT, collect it from road kill. It’s still viable,” Villa says, adding that his suggestion is usually not well received.
Andrew Weil, a pioneer in mind-body healing and founder of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, is widely respected for his knowledge of the toad and its psychedelic mutation. “Astonished” by the worldwide interest and, at the same time, “horrified” by the stories of wanton toad-gathering and poaching, Weil assures that the synthetic version is fine. “There is very little difference.”
“I wish they’d just leave them alone,” he said. “They are wonderful animals.”