Are there really hallucinogenic frogs?

By: Cristen Conger  | 
Ribbett. Australia wants to give cane toads the boot.
Ian Waldie/Getty Images
Key Takeaways
  • Certain toads, like the cane toad and Colorado River toad, produce venom containing bufotenine, a hallucinogenic substance.
  • The venom can be ingested by licking, smoking or injecting, but its effects are unpredictable and can be dangerous, causing hallucinations or even cardiac arrest.
  • Indigenous tribes have used toad venom in rituals for centuries, but modern use carries significant health risks.

Australia is desperately trying to show cane toads the exit door. The 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) toads have thrived a bit too well on the island continent ever since their introduction in 1935. People brought the toads -- native to the warmer climates in the United States and tropical regions of South America -- from Hawaii to eastern Australia to perform pest control on scarab beetles that were ravaging sugar cane crops [source: Cameron]. It seemed like a good idea at the time since the beetles are a preferred snack of the cane toad.

Now the government has spent upward of $15 million trying to pinpoint an effective way to control the cane toads [source: ScienceDaily]. Why? These members of the frog family reproduce like gangbusters, with females laying 8,000 to 35,000 eggs at one time [source: Cameron]. Only a fraction of those hatchlings reach adulthood, but the population of cane toads has rapidly multiplied in Australia, and the pest controller has become the pest.


Aside from eating those scarab beetles, cane toads chow down on honeybees, beetles, ants, termites and even small mammals [source: Cameron]. When threatened, they also excrete poisonous venom that's strong enough to kill dogs and even humans. As a result, the Global Invasive Species Database lists the cane toad as one of the 100 worst invasive species in the world [source: Global Invasive Species Database].

The quest for finding an effective control agent has been tricky since the ­government doesn't want to decimate other frog or amphibian populations in the process [source: ScienceDaily]. Recently, scientists have isolated an "alarm pheromone" in these amphibians, which they hope will be the key to minimizing the cane toad population in Australia. When cane toads release this pheromone, or chemical messenger, it frightens other toads away from the area. In experiments, the pheromone literally frightened the tadpoles to death [source: ScienceDaily].

But not everyone wants to see the cane toad go. The cane toad holds a central place in certain psychedelic rituals some people practice in Australia. Are these just delusions of grandeur, or does the cane toad actually have hallucinogenic properties? Trip on to the next page for the answer, man.


Bufotenine: Will Croakers Make You Croak?

People in the United States have used excretions from the Colorado River toad to get high.
Joel Sartore/Getty Images

In the 1980s, the Australian government outlawed the consumption of cane toad excretions under the Drug Misuse Act [source: Uzelac]. That's because some thrill-seekers had taken to cane-toad licking to get high. Remember the venom that cane toads shoot at their enemies? In certain dosages, it can produce hallucinogenic effects if licked or smoked.

Toad licking isn't unique to Australia. In the United States, another toad species, Bufo alvarius, known as the Colorado River toad or the Sonoran Desert toad, causes similar effects. Although it isn't illegal to own a Colorado River toad in the United States, the active chemical in toad venom, bufotenine, is a controlled substance. This is the same chemical contained in cane toad venom. Bufotenine-related drug arrests reappeared in Southwestern states such as Arizona in the mid-1980s and '90s, following its original heyday in the 1960s.


People looking to get high obtain the venom by applying pressure on the toad's paratoid glands, located behind its eardrums [source: Cameron]. This will cause the toad to ooze the milky substance, which someone may then directly lick off the amphibian or collect to dry and eventually smoke. Taking bufotenine is a crapshoot, however, since people won't know how much of the concentrated toxin they're ingesting until it's too late. That means they could experience mind-altering hallucinations or cardiac arrest and death. The psychedelic nature of bufotenine comes from a chemical called 5-MeO-DMT. It's in the dimethylethanamine family and is closely related to DMT, a naturally occurring hallucinogenic drug akin to synthetically made LSD. To get an idea of how 5-MeO-DMT affects the body, someone who takes DMT may initially experience an increased heart rate and pupil dilation. His or her visual hallucinations may include vibrating light and fast-moving images [source: Bruyn et al]. In short, this is a result of the drug interacting with neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, within the brain.

Drug experimentalists in the 1960s weren't the first people to discover these properties of frog extracts. Archaeological evidence points to South American Indian tribes using Colorado River toad venom in religious ceremonies dating back to 1150 B.C. [source: Cyphers et al]. The Matses Indians in northern Peru and the Matis of Brazil are also known to use the body fluids of the giant monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor) as they believe it infuses strength and hunting prowess into tribesmen [source: BBC]. Although not exactly hallucinogenic, the Indians place the venom onto open flesh wounds after which they'll supposedly experience heightened sensory awareness, increased strength and stamina to hunt more effectively [source: BBC].

But smoking, licking or injecting frog and toad extracts into your body isn't always a mellow mind melt. It can be very dangerous since, after all, it's a natural toxin against predators.


Frequently Asked Questions

What are the legal consequences of possessing toad venom in the U.S.?
Possessing toad venom containing bufotenine is illegal in the U.S. as it is classified as a controlled substance, leading to potential drug-related arrests and charges.
Can using hallucinogenic toad venom be fatal?
Yes, using hallucinogenic toad venom can be fatal due to the unpredictable dosage, potentially causing cardiac arrest or death.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links


  • Banks, Leo W. " A New Craze Hops Into the Drug Culture Fads." Los Angeles Times. April 19, 1994.
  • "Biological Weapons To Control Cane Toad Invasion In Australia." Australian Academy of Science. ScienceDaily. May 10, 2008. (Aug. 5, 2008) /releases/2008/05/080508131953.htm
  • Bruyn, G.W; Vecht, Charles J.; and Vinken, P.J. "Handbook of Clinical Neurology." Elsevier Health Sciences. 1997. (Aug. 6, 2008)
  • "Bufo marinus." Global Invasive Species Database. June 1, 2006. (Aug. 5, 2008)
  • Cameron, Elizabeth. "Cane Toads, Giant Toads or Marine Toads." Australian Museum. June 2002. (Aug. 5, 2008)
  • "Colorado River Toad: Bufo alvarius." New Hampshire Public Television. (Aug. 5, 2008)
  • Cyphers, Ann; Zúñiga, Belem; and Di Castro, Anna. "Another Look at Bufo marinus and the San Lorenzo Olmec." Human genetics: Problems and approaches. December 2005.
  • Hilgris, R. "Bufo marinus." Animal Diversity Web. 2001. (Aug. 5, 2008)
  • "The Matis." BBC. (Aug. 5, 2008)
  • Uzelac, Ellen. "Licking Toads Leaves More Than a Bad Taste in the Mouth." Los Angeles Times. Jan. 31, 1990.