The Toad That Fights With Its Mustache

“Doubtless he meant to sound threatening, but that absurd wisp of a mustache ruined the effect.” —George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

In A Nutshell

Think you’ve got an awesome mustache? Well, your facial fur is nothing compared to the Emei mustache toad’s. Once a year, this Chinese amphibian grows a needle-sharp mustache . . . only it isn’t for looks. The toad uses these spikes to do battle with rivals, and the winner earns the right to mate.

The Whole Bushel

What do Charlie Chaplin, Hulk Hogan, Ron Burgundy, and Leptobrachium boringii have in common? They all have killer mustaches. Only in L. boringii’s case, its mouthbrow can do some serious damage. Once a year, this feisty amphibian (better known as the Emei mustache toad) grows a super ‘stache to do battle with its similarly bristled brethren. Made out of keratin, these “nuptial spines” pop out of the male toad’s upper lip, and each critter sprouts between 10 and 16 facial spikes.

So what are these guys fighting about? Well, the ladies, of course. If you flew to China during February and March, you’d find these mustachioed males croaking sweet love songs to woo the females. Only they need a lot more than a sweet-sounding ribbit. The dudes have to find the perfect underwater place for the female to lay her eggs—the more cave-like the better. Once the guy discovers the perfect honeymoon suite, the two get busy.

First, the male grips the female with his bulky forearms (which grow to Arnold Schwarzenegger proportions during mating season) and waits for her to lay the eggs. As she squeezes out all those jellied blobs, the male inseminates them and then attaches the eggs to the cave roof. The whole time, the toads are slowly spinning around so the eggs make a circular pattern on the ceiling. Once the deed is done, the female hops off, and the male sticks around to guard the eggs, rubbing against them and protecting them from harm.

Of course, before you can make love, you have to make war. Multiple males scour the riverbanks looking for potential love nests, and from time to time, the dudes come to blows over who gets the best cave. So if a homeless toad stumbles upon a choice piece of real estate and finds someone has already called dibs, well, things get really nasty really fast. Generally, the intruder tries to sneak past the homeowner only to get pushed back out into the stream. That’s when things turn into a full-fledged MMA match.

Like sumo wrestlers, the toads grab hold of each other and start tossing each other around. Once a toad judo-flips his enemy, he goes to work, plunging his mustache into his rival’s stomach, filling him full of holes. On top of stabbing their opponents with super-sharp spikes, toads also try to smash their rivals against nearby rocks. These guys show no mercy, and as you might expect, the bigger the toad, the better chance he’s going to win.

Strangely, victorious toads never kill their enemy’s eggs. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why, but it might be to trick potential mates into thinking they’re particularly virile. Or perhaps their fatherly instincts are so strong they can’t bring themselves to abort anybody’s babies. Or it might just be they know the more tadpoles there are, the better chance their offspring will escape predators. Whatever the reason, the males watch over the eggs until they hatch and then shed their spikes and hop off into the woods, either happy fathers or losers who can’t wait for next year.

Show Me The Proof

Photo credit: Cameron M. Hudson, Jinzhong Fu
NewScientist: Zoologger: Hipster toad has weaponised moustache
Wired.com: Absurd Creature of the Week: This Toad Grows a Spiky Mustache and Stabs Rivals for the Ladies