An Ode to the Amazing Toadfish

With Save the Frogs Day coming up April 30, we thought what better time to consider the marvel that is the toadfish.

  • Toadfish were the first fish in space – logging more than 9.5 million miles aboard NASA spacecraft.
  • During World War II, toadfish saved countless German U-Boats by forcing the U.S. Government to remove acoustic mines from the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Toadfish can survive higher concentrations of ammonia than any living creature, leading scientists to study them for a cure for human livers damaged by booze.
  • When in the mood for love, toadfish sing bizarre melodies once attributed to Soviet submarines or twisted CIA experiments.
  • Their siren-like love chants inspired the Humming Toadfish Festival where San Francisco residents dress like fish and blow kazoos to imitate the love call of lonely toadfish.

Yes, they’re ugly.  Toadfish are named after toads for a reason. Even the fish heroically rocketed into space by NASA with astronaut John Glenn were officially described as “some of the ugliest and laziest fish known.” 

That’s why they need a good love call.  But the “boat whistle” sound they produce is so loud; it is infamous for keeping people near the ocean awake.  It is so loud that it exploded acoustic mines during WWII, forcing the government to remove them. 

Toadfish can make such bodacious sounds because the muscles in their swim bladders are the fastest contracting vertebrate muscles on the planet (next fastest is a rattlesnake tail).

When males vibrate to attract females, the result can charitably be described as a group of oboe players hitting the same note, according to the New York Times.

”It’s the most God-awful sound,” said the director of San Francisco’s Steinhart Aquarium. ”It’s like that scene in every crummy war movie you ever saw where all the B-29’s are flying together in formation.”

Toadfish singing puzzled the residents of Sausalito houseboats for years, where theories included a Soviet submarine sneaking around San Francisco Bay, a CIA experiment, a sunken Japanese cargo ship of vibrators or low-flying B-52’s. The truth – that it was the amorous love call of lonely toadfishes — inspired the Humming Toadfish Festival.

If you’re curious about those inspiring toadfish love calls, listen to them here.

Toadfish need a good love call, because they look like toads.  Even NASA called them ugly when it used them to study space sickness.  Why toadfish? Because the structure of the inner ear of the toadfish — the place that helps control balance — is extraordinarily like a human’s.

Did I say they were ugly?  Here’s how Life in the Chesapeake Bay describes them:  “Toadfish may lay claim to being the ugliest fish in the Chesapeake Bay, a vision for nightmares, slimy and ragged, with fleshy flaps hanging from their lips and over their eyes, covered with warts and with threatening, wide-gaping jaws armed with sharp teeth.”

They’re ugly but hardy – able to survive for a full day out of water – so no need to rush your catch and release techniques.  But anglers don’t want to keep them in the boat.  When caught they erect sharp spines on the dorsal fin and gills, and snap viciously with powerful jaws made to break oysters shells and chew crabs. 

Watch your fingers.  But hey, if you were that ugly you’d bite too.

© Kelpfish | – Toadfish