Named for their distinctive dorsal marking and only known habitat (a few miles north along Nottawasaga Bay from Meaford, my home town), the now-extinct Nottawasagan Daisybacks are the only species of toad ever known to cooperate with one another in the capture of prey. Slate-coloured, they were all but invisible amid the stones and tall grass of their shoreline habitat where, in small bands, they’d arrange themselves within striking distance of one another and spear duped insects off one another's ‘daisies’ with their sticky tongues.

According to local records, they were first discovered and photographed in the Spring of 1942 by two young brothers* from Toronto who, being unacquainted with toads, assumed these were typical, so made nothing of it. A full year would pass before they were discovered a second time, this time, wittingly—a full year of quiet before the storm, as it turned out.

Though the Meaford Express was first to break news of their discovery, it was, by most accounts, a front-page article about them in the June 17th 1943 issue of the Owen Sound Sun Times that sparked the unforeseen firestorm of public interest that, within weeks, saw our Daisybacks go from hopping around in obscurity to hopping across the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast—up one side of the U.S. border and down the other. Then onto the covers of Life magazine, and Look, and a whole slew of other publications, as well. And that wasn’t the half of it, for, by now, larger-than-life radio personality, Gordon Sinclair, was stirring passions both here and abroad with his weekly ‘Daisybacks Forever’ broadcasts, and religious leaders of all denominations were crafting sermons around them, and big-name comedians like Burns & Allen and Edgar Bergen were writing them into their routines. Bob Hope, too. It was crazy. And then came President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s September ’43 Fireside Chat, in which, to an estimated 60 million listeners, he professed a personal fascination with our Daisybacks and famously declared their co-operative ways “an example to mankind we’d do well to follow.”

We’d been thrust into the limelight and community pride was through the roof, but there was no time for basking, for with all this attention came challenges, the most immediate being the challenge of accommodating the sudden deluge into our quiet little bayside community of all manner of people from all over—scientists, educators, journalists, photographers, sightseers, tourists, politicians, developers, even a couple of big shots from Hollywood. And then came the fishermen, for as the world learned of our Daisybacks, it learned, also, of our abundant lake trout. Almost overnight, Meaford became an international tourist destination, and one of my earliest memories, ever, is of cars and people, all day long, everywhere I looked. It might have been disastrous, but the townsfolk were not only up to the challenge, they were hungry for it and, in a matter of months, Meaford was harbouring the largest fresh-water fishing fleet in the world and had been ranked Canada’s third-largest tourist attraction.

If you were a resident during these times, you prospered, simple as that. It was harder not to. Even so, not everyone welcomed the change and, even among those who did, emotions were mixed. A world war was raging in the background and many, especially those with a personal stake in it, were not easily cheered by prosperity. For most, however, life had never been better and when, in the summer of ‘45, the guns fell silent, never been better became even more so, and there were many of us believed the good times would last forever.

The first sign they wouldn't came in the summer of '48 when, without warning, the Daisyback population, which, till then, had been steadily increasing, took a sudden plummet. Reaction was swift. With so much at stake, Council was prepared for every possible contingency and, within hours, had assembled an investigative team led by University of Toronto’s Chief Herpetologist, Hugh Percival.

Percival and his team were not long discovering the problem and to a quickly-convened Council delivered troubling news—the Daisybacks’ distinctive marking had been corrupted** and there were many in the group could no longer attract prey for others. The situation, said Percival, was already critical and there was no time to waste. As a first step, all the Daisybacks would have to be rounded up and those with corrupted markings separated out.

The next morning, while town officials roped off the Daisybacks’ habitat, teams of volunteers were assembled and equipped and, by noon, the roundup had begun. They expected to finish in a week, all going well, and some thought even sooner.

But all did not go well. The weather turned suddenly cold and rainy, and the toads proved extraordinarily elusive and, by week’s end, little progress had been made and spirits were low. Then, further darkening the mood, tragedy struck—two young local boys drowned in a capsizing just offshore from the roundup. For days after, no one cared much about toads and, by the time they did, it was too late—our Daisybacks were well on their way to extinction.

This first blow to the local economy was followed, several years later, by the arrival in Georgian Bay of the Lamprey Eel, which, in the span of a few more years, decimated the lake trout. Loss of our Daisybacks had hurt, certainly, but caused little serious hardship. Now, though, with the lake trout also gone, vacationers were easily drawn elsewhere and, before long, the streets were empty, the fishing boats gone, the hotels put to other uses.

Today, these many years later, the once-bustling harbour provides shelter for sailboats and, apart from a few photographs and one stuffed Nottawasagan Daisyback in a glass case at the back of the local museum, little trace remains of the toad that once earned Meaford a 12-page feature in National Geographic.

Of the books they inspired, ‘Daisies Come and Daisies Go’, by area resident, Herbert Clement Appleyard, remains my favourite. It was Roosevelt’s favourite, too. He kept a copy by his bed.

* While brothers Alan and Peter Williams are generally credited with discovering the Daisybacks, some argue that an unwitting discovery is not a discovery and give full credit, instead, to Andrew Laycock, who, on May 24, 1943, was the first to discover them wittingly.

  1. ** The cause of the corruption remains unresolved. Though some  hold firm to the notion that our Daisybacks interbred with non-Daisybacks, there are many who insist, as did Percival, that corruption happened far too quickly for that to have been the cause. Though, at the time, a topic of hot debate, this matter stirs little interest today. Not so the issue of how our Daisybacks could have evolved in the first place and escaped notice for so long—that’s a hot topic, still. And there are a growing number believe they didn’t.

the Daisybacks