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Robert A. Villa Tucson Herpetological Society, P.O. Box 709, Tucson AZ, 85702, USA

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Abstract

The Sonoran Desert Toad (Incilius alvarius) is the only vertebrate known to produce the powerful psychedelic, 5-MeO-DMT, which is easily-accessible form the animal's exterior glands. This paper seeks to present the biocultural (ecological and cultural) history, and conservation concerns of I. alvarius. Discovery of 5-MeO-DMT in I. alvarius was first reported in 1965 and 1967 (Erspamer et al.), and eventually led to the popular psychedelic use of this species after a pamphlet was published in 1984 (Most). Its mostly unmitigated use in for-profit spirituality, wellness, and adventurism has driven erroneous, coerced, and exploitive narratives of ancient Indigenous use – increasing: exploitation of I. alvarius, biocultural erosion, and malpractice of 5-MeO-DMT. Reconciliation of diverse needs is intellectually and financially challenging. It must be careful of approaches that are implicitly biased by a demand that extracts, appropriates, and trades in Indigenous and wellness motifs – but can be reached from the reconciliation and intersection of Indigenous and Western science and priorities. Few conservation-oriented studies and outreach elements concerning I. alvarius exist, and most have been supported by crowdfunding.

Abstract

The Sonoran Desert Toad (Incilius alvarius) is the only vertebrate known to produce the powerful psychedelic, 5-MeO-DMT, which is easily-accessible form the animal's exterior glands. This paper seeks to present the biocultural (ecological and cultural) history, and conservation concerns of I. alvarius. Discovery of 5-MeO-DMT in I. alvarius was first reported in 1965 and 1967 (Erspamer et al.), and eventually led to the popular psychedelic use of this species after a pamphlet was published in 1984 (Most). Its mostly unmitigated use in for-profit spirituality, wellness, and adventurism has driven erroneous, coerced, and exploitive narratives of ancient Indigenous use – increasing: exploitation of I. alvarius, biocultural erosion, and malpractice of 5-MeO-DMT. Reconciliation of diverse needs is intellectually and financially challenging. It must be careful of approaches that are implicitly biased by a demand that extracts, appropriates, and trades in Indigenous and wellness motifs – but can be reached from the reconciliation and intersection of Indigenous and Western science and priorities. Few conservation-oriented studies and outreach elements concerning I. alvarius exist, and most have been supported by crowdfunding.

Introduction

The Sonoran Desert Toad (Incilius alvarius) is being exploited for something it produces from its skin: 5-MeO-DMT. It produces this so-called “god molecule” in a potent, easily accessible concentration, and is thus far the only known vertebrate to do so. When inhaled, this molecule can completely overwhelm the senses, sending one out of consensus reality — inducing significant feelings of existential illumination and meaning; love; interconnectedness; the extreme diminishment of one's ego; and the alleviation of certain psychiatric problems. Others take this extreme substance recreationally. However, instances of terror-induced trauma, and death are also associated with misuse of this substance, which is not yet fully appreciated by most scientists and health professionals. Abuse of this drug is low, but indirectly possible (see Comca'ac below).

The rise in notoriety, and desire for the potential benefits of this psychedelic, present a battery of issues for I. alvarius, its ecosystem, and people: (i) vulnerability to a rising demand from the (ii) perpetuation of an economy that trades on wellness and fabricated or mischaracterized Indigenous customs, and (iii) implicitly-biased notions of sustainable exploitation at odds with bio-cultural wellbeing. Public outreach illustrating and addressing the dissonance between extractive capitalism and bio-cultural reality will begin to alleviate growing misunderstanding and demand for this species. This includes equitable access to healthcare systems that allow for the intersection of time-tested therapies across disciplines and cultures (cultural reconciliation).

Ecce Bufo

The current scientific name for the Sonoran Desert Toad is I. alvarius (syn. Bufo alvarius) (Frost, Lemmon, McDiarmid, & Mendelson, 2017). It represents an old lineage within a formerly more diverse genus of temperate and tropical species (Mendelson III et al., 2011). It is also known as Colorado River Toad,1 sapo and sapo toro (Spanish), and various Indigenous names in the Sonoran region. Adults may reach approximately 19 cm (7.5 in) or more with a large, distinctive kidney-shaped gland (parotoid) behind each eye, and a white wart(s) at the angle of the jaw (Fouquette, 1970) (Fig. 1). Along with the Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum), and other species, I. alvarius is part of an iconic biota of tropical ancestry with remarkable adaptations to aridity – characterizing the biocultural region they are endemic to: the Sonoran Desert (Dimmitt, Comus, & Brewer, 2015; Fouquette, 1970).

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Incilius alvarius, the Sonoran Desert Toad. Photograph by Sadie Roth. Used with permission

Citation: Journal of Psychedelic Studies 7, S1; 10.1556/2054.2023.00269

Its core distribution is in the states of Sonora and southern Arizona, peripherally ranging into: extreme northern Sinaloa; north and south -western Chihuahua; southwestern New Mexico; and historically into extreme southeastern California and northeastern Baja California (Fouquette, 1970). It is of special concern in Baja California, California, and New Mexico where its range is peripheral, or recently historical (Government of New Mexico, 2023; J. H. Valdez-Villavivencio and B. D. Hollingsworth pers. comm. 2023; Thomson, Wright, & Shaffer, 2016). In Arizona, it may be collected with a valid fishing license (Arizona Game and Fish Department, 2021), and protected by tribal law. It is protected by Mexican law, pending cultural or scientific permissions (Vega, 2023). Federal punishment in the United States is possible if I. alvarius is trafficked for 5-MeO-DMT, a scheduled substance (United States, 2022), pending cultural or religious purposes (Romero, 2022).

Natural history

After a 9-month dormancy (aestivation) during the dry season (Oct.-Jun.), Sonoran Desert amphibians become active with the onset of heavy monsoon storms when they seek out temporary rain pools and permanent ponds where the males form deafening choruses in competition to amplex females and spawn. Each species has a unique call to avoid hybridization with other toads, although hybrids are known (Leavitt et al. in prep.). Overstimulated males may attempt to amplex anything, including cans, bottles, and unsuspecting herpetologists (R. A. Villa, pers. obs.). One I. alvarius may produce up to 8,000 eggs and tadpoles that must survive predators and desiccation during a lengthier metamorphosis of about a month before their aquatic environment usually evaporates completely (Leavitt et al. in prep) – much longer than some species that may take little more than a week depending on specific situations (Dodd, 2023). Newly transformed toadlets must then race to eat, grow, and store energy to overcome the threats faced as tadpoles – more than doubling in size in two weeks (Leavitt et al., in prep.). Adults face an assortment of predators despite their defensive secretions (Leavitt et al., in prep.; Villa, Riplog-Peterson, Repp, & Coles-Reeves, 2021), and many toads are killed by road traffic during their active season.

Before their return to aestivation, I. alvarius will restore energy reserves by attempting to swallow any perceived prey (moving object). Because of their large size, this includes, small vertebrates, an assortment of invertebrates with formidable physical and chemical defenses (spines, barbs, hairs, venoms, toxins), and event spent ammunition (Cole, 1964; Leavitt et al., in prep; Luccioni & Wyman, 2021). Toadlets depend on small invertebrates, including fat and protein rich termites. Being a true toad (family Bufonidae), I. alvarius lacks true teeth, but is the only toad known to have tooth-like structures (odontoids) on the maxilla (Mendelson III and Pramuk, 1998).

While many amphibians and other animals are able to sequester defensive chemicals from their diet (i.e. arrow poison frogs) or produce them with bacterial symbionts (Taricha torosa, Vaelli et al., 2020), the defensive skin secretions of toads are the result of adaptation to more terrestrial, and arid lifestyles – involving the balance of sodium and potassium ions across cell membranes that mediates the balance of bodily water and muscular reflexes (Smith, 1986). This “weaponized sweat” is often referred to as “toad venom”. Biologically, it is a poison: a passively released toxin consumed by predators (Hanson & Vial, 1956; Jones, 2022).2 Domestic dogs and cats – and sometimes humans – may be intoxicated by and sometimes succumb to these secretions known as bufotoxins, a type of cardiac glycoside (Allen & Neill, 1956; Musgrave & Cochran, 1929; Rabor, 1952).

The prevailing belief that I. alvarius is long-lived may owe in part to its large size, reclusive life history, and tenacity for life in an extreme environment. Rumored longevity of over 15 years is likely rooted with a documented captive (Snider & Bowler, 1992). One currently living (with a cataract) at the time of this writing at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is known to have been collected as a “young adult” in 1999 (R. Bramel, pers. comm. 2023). However, a sample of wild individuals from one site rarely exceeded six years of age (Leavitt et al., in prep.). This is still a noble age for a desert amphibian in light of variable conditions, and predators. It may be conceivable that in certain situations and favorable environments, wild individuals might live much longer, pending further data.

Sometimes I. alvarius might appear prior to the onset of summer rain (usually around more perennial sources of water/moisture). Accordingly, the Yoemem (Yaqui) may appease it as a harbinger of rain by tying symbolic ribbons to it, carefully parading it on a bier, and praying it bring good rains (Villa, pers. obs.).

Psychedelic origin

The popular Vice TV show Hamilton's Pharmacopeia attempted to elucidate the psychedelic origin of I. alvarius (Vice 2017). It is here that one Alfred Savinelli claimed the distinction of the first person to have inhaled 5-MeO-DMT from I. alvarius. After watching this, a number of people contacted the host and researcher of the show, Hamilton Morris, with some question and discrepancies, including the friends of one Ken Nelson (H. Morris pers. comm. 2023). Nelson eventually responded with a letter to Morris identifying himself as the actual first person to have smoked 5-MeO-DMT from I. alvarius (Vice, 2021).

Nelson read a note in Omni magazine (Maurer, 1981) in which an archaeologist attributed toad remains in an excavation to an artifact of psychedelic practice. This interpretation seems to have arisen from the fact that most toads produce psychotropic substances in their skin known as bufotoxins (not 5-MeO-DMT). However, some of these act as cardiovascular toxins, delivered through the mucous membranes in the mouth of predators – but also utilized for traditional medicine, and poisoning3 worldwide (Davis & Weil, 1992; DeGraaff, 1991). Additionally, archaeological toad remains and symbolism in the Americas have not yet been substantiated as psychedelic in origin.

Nelson further researched the pharmacology of toads and procured a scientific monograph (Blair, 1972) in which a chapter on the skin toxins of toads is authored by regarded chemists of amphibian toxins (Cei, Erspamer, & Roseghini, 1972). The references in this chapter led Ken to an article in which these chemists were the first to publish the unique finding of 5-MeO-DMT in the parotoid and associated skin glands of I. alvarius (Erspamer, Vitali, Roseghini, & Cei, 1967).4 To date, 5-MeO-DMT is not yet found in other toads or vertebrates – at least not in such a potent, accessible form. This curiosity (from a human perspective) has yet to be conclusively explained, and unfortunately for the species, has been interpreted as fateful or divine intervention by those insistent on its extraction from I. alvarius. This uniquely evolved trait may simply reflect an incidental genetic mutation related to the coding for bufotenine, a closely-related molecule found in most toads (Erspamer et al., 1967), or a microbial symbiosis (Luccioni et al., in prep.) pending further study.

Having learned about this unique trait, Nelson drove to Arizona to collect specimens in 1983 (Fig. 2). Before releasing them, he expressed their parotoid glands, releasing their substance onto his windshield to dry, and reportedly became the first person to freebase and bravely inhale the 5-MeO-DMT contained therein. It is further remarkable that the substance is heat stable for freebase inhalation. Nelson was so moved by his experience that he produced a pamphlet describing the procedure by way of a college writing course, under the pseudonym “Albert Most” and illustrated by his friend Gail Patterson (Fig. 3) (Morris, 2021; Most, 1984; Vice, 2021). Suspecting this discovery could result in problems for the species, he prefaced his instructions for smoking the toad's secretions by referencing the fabled goose who laid golden eggs,5 and began drafting plans for a synthetic route for 5-MeO-DMT (Vice, 2021).

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

Ken Nelson during his trip to Arizona in 1983. Photograph courtesy of Sharlene Day. Used with permission

Citation: Journal of Psychedelic Studies 7, S1; 10.1556/2054.2023.00269

Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.

Ken Nelon's personal copy of the pamphlet he produced under the pen name Albert Most, with illustrations by Gail Patterson. Scan of pamphlet courtesy of Sharlene Day, used with permission

Citation: Journal of Psychedelic Studies 7, S1; 10.1556/2054.2023.00269

Invented narratives

Smoking the secretions of I. alvarius grew in Mexico with a small vanguard of practitioners in the early 2010s. They administered to and experimented it on substance addicts, as well as those seeking psychedelic experiences. Within this milieu, I. alvarius was branded as an almost-lost ancient or “ancestral” medicine (A. Ortíz-Bernal, 2023; de Greef, 2022). This gained leverage when respected scholars provided personal accounts of smoking these secretions in academic and popular outlets, speculating that such a powerful smoke must have originated amongst ancient peoples, pending conclusive information (Davis & Weil, 1992; Gallagher, 1994; Richards, 1994; Weil & Davis, 1994).

How could this purported practice have evaded the keen documentation of ancient doctors and early European occupiers? While Indigenous cultures have hidden and preserved practices from outside inquisition, currently no physical or chemical evidence exists for the use of toads as psychedelic sources in pre-Columbian America (Davis, 2010; McKenna, 2018).6,7 From prehistoric to more recent times, archaeological toad remains have thus far been identified as having been used as food, non-psychedelic preparations (more below), symbolic, or incidental to human occupation of a given site (part of the local contemporary or historical fauna) (Davis, 2010; Whyte & Compton, 2020). Additionally, careful examination has so far excluded I. alvarius as evidence of psychedelic use in archaeological sites based on unambiguous bone morphology of other toad species (Bever, 2005), and the deposition of remains incidental to human occupation (Swann, 1999). A recent literary review excluded I. alvarius from the Mesoamerican pharmacopeia (Horák, Segovia, & Bello, 2019).

Their metamorphic and amphibious nature, underground habits, and association with rain make toads staple players in creation events, mediators of the underworld and aquatic realms, and symbols of duality, crops, stability, etc. (Kennedy, 1982). They are often depicted on jewelry, vessels, incense burners, musical instruments, and even smoking pipes (DeGraaff, 1991; Hamblin, 1984; Kennedy, 1982). The toads themselves may sometimes be consumed as food after careful preparation, and/or their toxins may have been utilized in non-psychedelic preparations (Pérez, Schuster, & Jofré, 2018; Whyte & Compton, 2020). Based on cultural imagery, Kennedy (1982) postulated (minus chemical assay) that waterfowl consuming toads and their tadpoles could accumulate bufotenine in their flesh which could then be consumed by humans to produce psychoactive effects. Kennedy (1982) also cites an unpublished manuscript by Knab (1974) that details the preparation and effects of a potion from Veracruz utilizing the parotoid glands of a Marine Toad (Rhinella marinus) – conflating the chills, delirium, and tachycardia brought on by ingesting this potion with a psychoactive experience – claiming that the other ingredients potentiated the psychedelic properties of bufotenine from the glands used in the recipe (minus chemical analysis). There is yet no evidence to show that bufotenine was somehow accessed or extracted from the toxic constituents of toad skin secretions for psychoactivity in ancient America. Additionally, bufotenine, and closely-related 5-MeO-DMT, are not readily orally active psychotropics (McBride, 2000; Shen, Jiang, Winter, & Yu, 2010).8

Despite these salient discrepancies, toad symbolism and motif in Mesoamerica continues to be conflated with psychedelic use (Dobkin de Rios, 1974; Fordan, 2020; Hamblin, 1984; Orsolini et al., 2018 and ensuing discourse) – and likely contributed to the appearance of toad licking, a dangerous practice (see cardiac toxins above) which seems to have basis in the ethnopharmacology of toads worldwide (Lyttle, 1993; Lyttle, Goldstein, & Gartz, 1996). In the Sonoran Desert, First Peoples regard them as powerful, poisonous beings playing important roles in creation events (cursing those that mistreat them) or simply not conspicuous in folklore (Felger & Moser, 1985; Felger, 1990, Malkin, 1967; R. A. Villa pers. obs.).

Amphibian residues on pre-Columbian artifacts are not yet identified, studied, or published. Analysis of modern toad (and relevant amphibian species) skin secretions would determine i) chemical composition across species, populations, and individuals, and ii) the percentage of psychotropic and toxic constituents in relation to ethnobiological questions. Such lines of inquiry and study must exercise and intersect intellectual and disciplinary rigor, interpretation, and biocultural sensitivity.

Cautious optimism

The grounds for smoking 5-MeO-DMT (from I. alvarius or artificially produced) continues to be experimental. Its promotion by for-profit spirituality and psychedelia should be taken cautiously. Legality aside, without qualified assistance and facilitation, serious trauma, including death, can result from its malpractice or misuse. This is often from its use with other substances (sometimes un-consensually), and un-known or -heeded underlying health conditions (Liana, 2019). Additionally, inhalation of dangerous toxins might be possible by smoking the secretions of misidentified toads – further investigation is needed to confirm this. With unqualified treatment, it may also be possible for a perfectly healthy person to become traumatized or endangered by shock under its influence. While abuse of this substance is low, practitioners and so-called psychonauts can be susceptible to the chemical therapies they espouse with conviction (de Greef, 2022; Rex, 2022; Robbins, 2022, see Comca'ac below).

Devout smokers of I. alvarius parotoid secretions may cite elusive traits found nowhere else, suggesting an “entourage effect”. However, the amount of 5-MeO-DMT that I. alvarius produces is enough to eclipse the negligible amounts of accompanying psychoactive substances such as bufotenine (1/100th of a minimum amount to have an effect on the brain) (Uthaug et al., 2019). Additionally, concentrations of 5-MeO-DMT may vary appreciably between specimens.

5-MeO-DMT and associated substances in the parotoid glands of I. alvarius may be easily replicated artificially – improving purity, dosage accuracy, and safety of humans and toad alike – avoiding the variable output from the toads themselves. While alternative sources aren't without their environmental effects, artificial production, and physiological and genomic research could theoretically alleviate poaching on I. alvarius. Operating within the ideals of open science, synthetic routes for producing 5-MeO-DMT have recently been published, such as Sherwood, Claveau, Lancelotta, Kavlo, and Lenoch (2020), Morris (2021) in an expanded edition of Ken Nelson's (Albert Most's) pamphlet (Fig. 4); and Back of the Yards Algae Sciences, Inc – having synthesized the molecule from cultured I. alvarius cells, and reportedly making them freely available (Carpenter, 2022; Lerer, Reynolds, Varia, Blakolmer, & Lerer, 2023). A few genomic and neurobiological projects are focused on the pathways of 5-MeO-DMT in I. alvarius (N. K. Whiteman, B. K. Sullivan pers. comms. 2023). 5-MeO-DMT has also been extracted from certain plants. Time will tell if these activities will alleviate or increase collecting pressure on I. alvarius – as the exoticism, thrill, and convenience of seeking this species will persist with its developing cultural arc.

Fig. 4.
Fig. 4.

First page of Morris' (2021) artificial synthesis of 5-MeO-DMT in the revised, expanded edition of Ken Nelson's pamphlet. The new edition indicates Nelson's actual name instead of his pen name, Albert Most. Figure courtesy of Hamilton Morris. Used with permission

Citation: Journal of Psychedelic Studies 7, S1; 10.1556/2054.2023.00269

Medicine

What treatment, by whom, is most effective for this individual with that specific problem, under which set of circumstances, and how does it come about?” – Gordon L. Paul, PhD, 1969

The late enthusiast of 5-MeO-DMT, James Oroc, opined that the modern reference to psychedelics as “medicine” in the “psychedelic renaissance” is warped from ancient context – reflecting existential crises and imperialism of the Global North, where psychedelic and spiritual experiences have been repressed or abused (Moore, 2018). Despite reports of harm from the malpractice of 5-MeO-DMT, ongoing studies assessing the nature of its use in more controlled settings have shown that it may hold important therapeutic potential. Using synthetic 5-MeO-DMT, eighty percent of survey respondents from one observational study reported improvements in symptoms of depression and anxiety (Davis, So, Lancelotta, Barsuglia, & Griffiths, 2019). Scientific reporting on the beneficial effects of toad-sourced 5-meo-DMT (Uthaug et al., 2019) must be careful to avoid misguiding support for its extraction from toads (Uthaug, 2019). There have been no large-scale clinical studies of 5-MeO-DMT. This should change as various pharmaceutical projects are intent on making 5-MeO-DMT a more widely approved substance (e.g. GHRes.com). Additionally, Beckley Psytech (Oxford, England) raised $80 million through eager investors to initiate studies leading to trials of proprietarily-synthesized 5-MeO-DMT for treatment-resistant depression (Business Wire, 2021).

Indigenous peoples have always exchanged their traditional therapies amongst themselves – psychedelic and otherwise – in response to their existential challenges. See the Indigenous diaspora of Peyote and the Native American Church as a response to the oppressive forces of Western expansion (Patchen, 2018). Exercising their Indigenous autonomy, the Yoemem (Yaqui) in Sonora recently established a pan-American tribal partnership where substance use disorders and other health and societal challenges have been addressed with the aid of ceremony, community, psychedelic plants, and in very specific cases I. alvarius secretions (V. A. Ochoa pers. comm. 2023). While I. alvarius was never an ancient psychedelic for the Yoemem, it is deemed responsible for scheming the return of rain to Earth, and creating their Río Yaqui homeland in the process (Olavarría, 1989; O. Pérez pers. comm.) – land they continue to wrest for their rightful sovereignty.

Conservation: biological and cultural challenges

Traditional ecological knowledge and the Global North

Promising psychedelic (and otherwise) therapies have been developed and espoused by aboriginal peoples across the globe for millennia (McKenna, 2018). It's even been (controversially) speculated that psychedelics contributed to the evolution of the nascent human species (Arce & Winkelman, 2021), and religion (La Barre, 1992) – the so-called “stoned ape” hypothesis of ethnobiologist and mystic Terrence McKenna (1992). Centuries of practice and elaboration by Indigenous peoples have provided us with sophisticated therapies found in ecosystems in imminent danger of extinction. These ecosystems, representing 80% of Earth's biodiversity, are largely stewarded by Indigenous communities who are highly-qualified managers of traditional therapies and the biota found within their biocultural heritage (Hoagland & Albert, 2023; Schuster, Germain, Bennett, Reo, & Arcese, 2019; Sobrevila, 2008). Much of this traditional ecological knowledge is predicated on knowing ecosystems as a cognitive network of extended relations of which humans are active participants. This participation is further predicated on deep appreciation, reciprocity, and stewardship dictating the trajectory of life on Earth for future generations (Hoagland & Albert, 2023; Loeffler, 2020; Whyte, 2019). Dependence on vulnerable ecosystems subjects Indigenous people to the exploitive prerogatives of the Global North – disrupting tenets of reciprocity, subsistence, and sustainability with commercial schemes guised in romanticized views of nature, and holism. As such, the psychedelic renaissance must avoid its namesake's exploitation of the Global South – implementing more diverse, honest, transparent, and consensual approaches to psychedelic study and medicine – such that our questions and lines of investigation deepen in meaning and impact, reaching more diverse beneficiaries (Celidwen et al., 2022; George, Michaels, Sevelius, & Williams, 2019; Robbins, Hunt, Pelegri, & Gilbert, 2023; Williams, Romero, Braunstein, & Brant, 2022).

From the field: costs of a psychedelic market

To give you an idea of historic toad populations, Sonoran people would leave their outdoor lights off during the monsoon season, lest entire towns be overwhelmed by swarms of toads. In more recent times, rural Sonorans had begun to notice a general decline in toad numbers prior to the current demand for I. alvarius, due to factors discussed further below (A. Ortíz-Bernal, and R. A. Villa, unpubl. data).

5-MeO-DMT and other psychedelics are growing in notoriety as celebrities and influencers advertise and advocate their new found panaceae. After smoking it on a popular podcast, Mike Tyson proselytized about “smoking toad,” claiming to have done it up to three times a day (Kenton, 2021). Thus, the problematic market and mythologies grow, bringing more problems than benefits to the Global South – inflicting predictable and unpredictable damages that may impede promising therapies and solutions. It is difficult enough to alleviate the demand for wildlife products that don't actually provide the implied physiological benefits (e.g., rhino, tiger, turtle, Lake Titicaca Frog), let alone species that actually deliver advertised effects as I. alvarius can.

The perception that there are millions of I. alvarius to supply a market is played out when hundreds or thousands of toads are removed and displaced from easily accessible sites every season. As they are removed, surrounding populations fill the vacuum, giving the impression of an endless (“sustainable”) supply. This weakens populations that will collapse when a threshold of animals is removed. Such a collapse occurs when the largest, most obvious toads are seen and collected, decimating the primary reproductive (egg-laying) output of populations (Lamb, Mowat, McLellan, Nielsen, & Boutin, 2017; Prival & Schroff, 2012). In 2014, the Yoeme community in Sonora reported extirpation of I. alvarius at certain sites, as well as a prior seizure of “two tons” apparently meant for the psychedelic market (R. A. Villa field notes). As patches of populations are exhausted, I. alvarius is likely to be increasingly pursued throughout its range if the demand persists.

Despite being roughly handled by people, toads typically do not readily release these defensive secretions (R. A. Villa, pers. obvs.). Instead, their parotoid and associated glands are milked. While the toads are not killed by milking, its intensification can cause stress-induced interruptions of normal life behaviors (Brandl, Pruessner, & Farine, 2022). Further, collectors (sometimes indiscriminate of toad species9) typically do not return toads to their area of capture (K. Montaño-Pérez, pers. comm. 2023). This disorients toads, decreasing their survivability, especially after the prolonged stress of captivity during milking – increasing their susceptibility to predators and being hit by vehicles on roads; contracting and spreading diseases; and otherwise wasting away in search of their territories (Mazerolle, 2004).

Sustainable solutions are contradictory in an extractive market fundamentally at odds with biocultural wellbeing – a cognitive dissonance with the wellness motifs of the psychedelic renaissance. Phrases like “fair-trade toad” are misused, implying an industrial problem that has yet to be fully elucidated by serious study – largely due to the clandestine nature of that market. Ethical codes around the treatment of toads, and trade of toad-sourced 5-MeO-DMT are well-intentioned, but likely the most ethical source of toad-sourced 5-MeO-DMT is ironically that from fresh road-killed specimens.

Captive propagation

Ideas of breeding I. alvarius to supply a market and/or manage wild populations, while supporting Indigenous communities, are fraught with ethical issues that have complex repercussions (Anonymous, 2023; de Greef, 2022). See the convoluted socioeconomics of chauvinist big-game hunting and breeding schemes guised as conservation; poverty mitigation based on biodiversity conservation; and the diverse damages of large-scale farms (Di Minin et al., 2021; Edelstein, 2017; Guerrero-Pineda et al., 2022; Walljasper, 2019). While some enthusiasts are capable of breeding appreciable quantities of I. alvarius and Phyllomedusa bicolor for a wildlife or psychedelic market,10 it is a superficial response to bigger questions. What is the ethical map for keeping and exploiting captive-bred I. alvarius for the pet and psychedelic market?

Attempts to sustain wild amphibian populations with captive-bred amphibians is a formidable task and desperate measure that rarely works – as to begin with, an artificial influx of toads would mostly subsidize local carnivores (Dodd 2009). I. alvarius has not yet been significantly affected by the pathogens that are specifically dangerous to amphibians: Batrachochytridium dendrobatidis (“chytrid” or “Bd”) and Ranavirus. However, a farming scenario is ideal for their proliferation and vectorization into local ecosystems (Forrest & Schlaepfer, 2011; Hermosillo, 2013; Saucedo et al., 2019; Sigafus, Schwalbe, Hossack, & Muths, 2014). Furthermore, large-scale, concentrated animal processing has demonstrated the dangerous risks of zoonotic outbreak with the COVID-19 Pandemic (Macdonald, 2021). It also appears that chytrid may be adapting to hotter drier conditions in the Sonoran Desert (Roth, 2022).

In situ conservation

I. alvarius lacks a robust baseline of data that would support protections (not that such policies stop demand and markets). In other words, the current threats can't be adequately defined and addressed without several years of robust population data prior to the problems at hand. This is because I. alvarius has been overlooked as abundant and tenacious while triaging more charismatic and/or imperiled species. This all-too-common scenario makes “common” species vulnerable (Frimpong, 2018; Ghorayshi, 2014; Hance, 2020). Identifying and understanding the threats affecting I. alvarius is a significant task, requiring sizable infrastructure, contending with shifting variables and baselines across the large region it inhabits. Further, most conservation edicts and protective statuses carry formidable and periodical burdens of proof from increasingly taxed stakeholders to maintain protective status.

Sapo tourismo: costs of a spiritual market

If you look into the mirror of Nature and cannot see yourself in it, then you are too far away.” – Camillus Lopez

Above quoted mirror can become luridly warped by commercial interests appropriating spirituality and wellness. Reflecting historical scenarios of cultural coercion and extraction as a case in point are the already imperiled Comca'ac (Seri) people. Ever since an infamous practitioner befriended them, they began to smoke 5-MeO-DMT from I. alvarius to relieve themselves of substance abuse and associated issues. However, with little to no recourse to maintain sobriety, there is likewise very little preventing them from relapse – leading to the repeated application and perhaps abuse of 5-MeO-DMT (de Greef, 2022). This community is conflicted with adopting a fabricated myth of “toad medicine” that has been increasingly projected and coerced on them, compounded by a resulting wave of psychedelic toad tourism (sapo tourismo) that has helped propel them through the economic depression of the COVID-19 Pandemic. All this has divided the community between those who resent a growing misrepresentation, and those who practice and profit from “toad medicine” that so far does not appear not benefit the entire community (G. P. Nabhan pers. comm. 2023, R. A. Villa field notes). In addition to the intervention of illicit cartels (G. P. Nabhan, pers. comm. 2023, R. A. Villa field notes), an ethical code of conduct for harvesting the 5-MeO-DMT from I. alvarius has been drafted in response to the commodification of I. alvarius (Anonymous, 2023).

From this sordid cultural and socioeconomic laboratory and proving ground, churches and practices around I. alvarius are proliferating within and outside of Indigenous communities – including the legitimization of individuals trained by Comca'ac practitioners (Bello, 2021; Horák et al., 2019). Unmitigated, and leveraged by tenets of cultural and spiritual or religious freedom (or appropriation), this dubious cultural branding and echo-chambering could fare poorly for already imperiled communities and practitioners if and when a patient or client is severely traumatized or perishes under their care. Individual freedom and responsibility are fundamental tenets in the pursuit of wellness. However, the line reckoning between a manipulated narrative, and developing independent knowledge bases and lifeways is fraught with challenges and implications as diverse as those who engage in “toad medicine” (Bello, 2021; Horák et al., 2019).

I. alvarius is sufficiently threatened without pressure from the psychedelic and wellness sector. The last several decades has experienced a significant decline in amphibian populations – let alone global biodiversity, projected to shrink by 75% during the current mass extinction (Barnosky et al., 2011; Ceballos, Ehrlich, & Raven, 2020; Tristos, Merow, & Pigot, 2020). The Sonoran Desert region is not exempt. Of the battery of mostly anthropogenic threats, climate change is omnipresent. The range of I. alvarius is predicted to shrink by 23%, shifting closer to riparian, and more coastal areas of the Sonoran Desert region (Stefanick & Miles, 2023). The effects of industrial mining and agriculture, pollution, invasive species, and human expansion have permanent effects on the ecosystem and environment, let alone poaching. Alleviating this problem must involve a bio-cultural approach, paralleling technical and legislative efforts. One that creates public awareness; incentivizes, and virtues respect for I. alvarius and living systems – emphasizing mutual reciprocity and deep appreciation; and ostracizes the abuse of our bio-cultural heritage across practices and disciplines (Hoagland & Albert, 2023; Loeffler, 2020; Whyte, 2019).

The best things in life are free. The second best things are very, very expensive.” – Coco Chanel

The Tucson Herpetological Society has established the Sonoran Desert Toad Fund from the proceeds of multimedia campaigns and individual donations – utilizing motifs like “Protect the Sonoran Desert Toad [Respect and Protect Wildlife]”, “Please Trip Responsibly”, “Leave Toads Alone”, and “Don't Lick Toads!”. Thus far the THS has granted $6,736 (three projects in 2021) and $7980 (four projects in 2023) to understand the conservation needs of I. alvarius – including population studies, public outreach, climate change, and a baseline database. We are faced with ever-shifting issues complicated by our notions of culture, capitalism, ecology, science, and wellness leaping into the 21st century. Despite uncertainty, toads are only capable of forward locomotion – likewise, we must move with awareness, compassion, and the wisdom of our past.

Acknowledgements

This article is dedicated to the late Ken Nelson, and my late friends Justin Clark, Richard Felger, Justin O. Schmidt, Cecil Schwalbe, and Phil Rosen.

Many people contributed to the improvement of this manuscript, including an anonymous reviewer. Special thanks to Sharlene Day, Patrick Foley, Hamilton Morris, and Sadie Roth for use of original materials. I am thankful for the time and expertise of Leslie Boyer, Taylor Edwards, Miguel Fernández de Castro, Margaret Fusari, Kimon de Greef, Rafaelle Lancelotta, Karla Montaño-Perez, Gary Nabhan, Anny Ortíz-Bernal, Michael Powell, and Amadeo Rea.

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1

From the place it was first collected for formal description in Western science (Fouquette, 1968).

2

Venom is a toxin actively delivered for securing prey and/or self-defense, via fang, sting, beak, spine, barb, etc. (Jones, 2022).

3

It was erroneously thought that King John of England was poisoned to death with toad skin secretions (Tilley, 2018)

4

Vittorio Erspamer: discoverer of serotonin (Whitaker-Azmitia, 1999.).

5

A certain man had the good fortune to possess a goose that laid a golden egg every day. But dissatisfied with so slow an income, and thinking to seize the whole treasure at once, he killed the goose; and cutting her open, found her -- just what any other goose would be. – The Goose with the Golden Eggs by Aesop as quoted in Most (1984).

6

The defensive skin secretions of Phyllomedusa (South American leaf frogs, aka kambô or sapo) has been used to improve hunting in certain Amazonian cultures. It is not a psychedelic per se, but a violent purge, and cardiac stimulant that enhances the sensory acuity of wavering hunters. Its exportation to, and use in the Global North is practically divorced from its aboriginal context (Nogueira et al., 2022). It is becoming bred in captivity in appreciable numbers in the private sector with uncertain prospects in the wellness market: https://facebook.com/leopardgecko.geckodaddy

7

The prominent Mayan Classic Period politician Siyaj K'ak’ was previously known in glyphs by the nickname “Smoking Frog”, but later deciphered as “Fire is Born” (Braswell, 2003).

8

Bufotenin is found in higher concentrations in people with autism and schizophrenia (Emanuele et al., 2010).

9

Inhalation of dangerous toxins might be possible by harvesting and inhaling the volatized secretions from misidentified toads. Further investigation is needed.

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Editor-in-Chief:

Attila Szabo - University of Oslo

E-mail address: attilasci@gmail.com

Managing Editor:

Zsófia Földvári, Oslo University Hospital

 

Associate Editors:

  • Alan K. Davis - The Ohio State University & Johns Hopkins University, USA
  • Zsolt Demetrovics - Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary
  • Ede Frecska, founding Editor-in-Chief - University of Debrecen, Debrecen, Hungary
  • David Luke - University of Greenwich, London, UK
  • Dennis J. McKenna- Heffter Research Institute, St. Paul, USA
  • Jeremy Narby - Swiss NGO Nouvelle Planète, Lausanne, Switzerland
  • Stephen Szára - Retired from National Institute on Drug Abuse, Bethesda, USA
  • Enzo Tagliazucchi - Latin American Brain Health Institute, Santiago, Chile, and University of Buenos Aires, Argentina
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Book Reviews Editor:

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Editorial Board

  • Gábor Andrássy - University of Debrecen, Debrecen, Hungary
  • Paulo Barbosa - State University of Santa Cruz, Bahia, Brazil
  • Michael Bogenschutz - New York University School of Medicine, New York, NY, USA
  • Petra Bokor - University of Pécs, Pécs, Hungary
  • Jose Bouso - Autonomous University of Madrid, Madrid, Spain
  • Zoltán Brys - Multidisciplinary Soc. for the Research of Psychedelics, Budapest, Hungary
  • Susana Bustos - California Institute of Integral Studies San Francisco, USA
  • Robin Carhart-Harris - Imperial College, London, UK
  • Per Carlbring - Stockholm University, Sweden
  • Valerie Curran - University College London, London, UK
  • Alicia Danforth - Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles, USA
  • Rick Doblin - Boston, USA
  • Rafael G. dos Santos - University of Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil
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  • Stanislav Grof - California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, CA, USA
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  • Jiri Horacek - Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic
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  • Robert Jesse - Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, USA
  • Matthew Johnson - Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, USA
  • Eli Kolp - Kolp Institute New, Port Richey, FL, USA
  • Stanley Krippner - Saybrook University, Oakland, CA, USA
  • Evgeny Krupitsky - St. Petersburg State Pavlov Medical University, St. Petersburg, Russia
  • Rafael Lancelotta - Innate Path, Lakewood, CO, USA
  • Anja Loizaga-Velder - National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico
  • Luis Luna - Wasiwaska Research Center, Florianópolis, Brazil
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  • David Nichols - Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
  • David Nutt - Imperial College, London, UK
  • Torsten Passie - Hannover Medical School, Hannover, Germany
  • Janis Phelps - California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, CA, USA
  • József Rácz - Semmelweis University, Budapest, Hungary
  • Christian Rätsch - University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA
  • Sidarta Ribeiro - Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Natal, Brazil
  • William Richards - Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, USA
  • Stephen Ross - New York University, New York, NY, USA
  • Brian Rush - University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada
  • Eduardo Schenberg - Federal University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil
  • Ben Sessa - Cardiff University School of Medicine, Cardiff, UK
  • Lowan H. Stewart - Santa Fe Ketamine Clinic, NM, USA (Medical Director)
  • Rebecca Stone - Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA
  • Rick Strassman - University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Albuquerque, NM, USA
  • Csaba Szummer - Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church, Budapest, Hungary
  • Manuel Torres - Florida International University, Miami, FL, USA
  • Luís Fernando Tófoli - University of Campinas, Campinas, Brazil State
  • Malin Uthaug - Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands
  • Julian Vayne - Norwich, UK
  • Nikki Wyrd - Norwich, UK

Attila Szabo
University of Oslo

E-mail address: attilasci@gmail.com

Indexing and Abstracting Services:

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  • BIOSIS Previews
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  • DOAJ
  • Scopus
  • CABELLS Journalytics

2022  
Web of Science  
Total Cites
WoS
226
Journal Impact Factor 4.5
Rank by Impact Factor

n/a

Impact Factor
without
Journal Self Cites
4.1
5 Year
Impact Factor
n/a
Journal Citation Indicator 0.97
Rank by Journal Citation Indicator

Pharmacology & Pharmacy 91/362
Psychiatry 69/264

Scimago  
Scimago
H-index
5
Scimago
Journal Rank
0.416
Scimago Quartile Score

Anthropology Q1
Biological Psychiatry Q4
Clinical Psychology Q3
Health (social science) Q3
Pharmacology Q3
Psychiatry and Mental Health Q3
Social Psychology Q3

Scopus  
Scopus
Cite Score
4.2
Scopus
CIte Score Rank
Anthropology 31/468 (93rd PCTL)
Health (social science) 78/344 (77th PCTL)
Social Psychology 96/292 (70th PCTL)
Clinical Psychology 96/292 (67th PCTL)
Psychiatry and Mental Health 219/531 (58th PCTL)
Pharmacology (medical) 115/260 (55th PCTL)
Biological Psychiatry 30/47 (37th PCTL)
Scopus
SNIP
0.627

2021  
Web of Science  
Total Cites
WoS
not indexed
Journal Impact Factor not indexed
Rank by Impact Factor

not indexed

Impact Factor
without
Journal Self Cites
not indexed
5 Year
Impact Factor
not indexed
Journal Citation Indicator not indexed
Rank by Journal Citation Indicator

not indexed

Scimago  
Scimago
H-index
2
Scimago
Journal Rank
not yet available
Scimago Quartile Score Anthropology (Q3)
Biological Psychiatry (Q4)
Clinical Psychology (Q4)
Health (social science) (Q4)
Pharmacology (medical) (Q4)
Psychiatry and Mental Health (Q4)
Social Psychology (Q4)
Scopus  
Scopus
Cite Score
0,9
Scopus
CIte Score Rank
Anthropology 186/443 (Q2)
Health (social science) 234/323 (Q3)
Clinical Psychology 213/292 (Q3)
Pharmacology (medical) 190/255 (Q3)
Psychiatry and Mental Health 419/529 (Q4)
Social Psychology 243/296 (Q4)
Biological Psychiatry 38/43 (Q4)
Scopus
SNIP
0,381

2020  
CrossRef Documents 8
WoS Cites 37
WoS H-index 4
Days from submission to acceptance 95
Days from acceptance to publication 75
Acceptance Rate 41%

2019  
WoS
Cites
11
CrossRef
Documents
35
Acceptance
Rate
77%

 

Journal of Psychedelic Studies
Publication Model Gold Open Access
Submission Fee none
Article Processing Charge €990
Subscription Information Gold Open Access
Regional discounts on country of the funding agency World Bank Lower-middle-income economies: 50%
World Bank Low-income economies: 100%
Further Discounts Corresponding authors, affiliated to an EISZ member institution subscribing to the journal package of Akadémiai Kiadó: 100%. 
   

Journal of Psychedelic Studies
Language English
Size A4
Year of
Foundation
2016
Volumes
per Year
1
Issues
per Year
3
Founder Akadémiai Kiadó
Debreceni Egyetem
Eötvös Loránd Tudományegyetem
Károli Gáspár Református Egyetem
Founder's
Address
H-1117 Budapest, Hungary 1516 Budapest, PO Box 245.
H-4032 Debrecen, Hungary Egyetem tér 1.
H-1053 Budapest, Hungary Egyetem tér 1-3.
H-1091 Budapest, Hungary Kálvin tér 9.
Publisher Akadémiai Kiadó
Publisher's
Address
H-1117 Budapest, Hungary 1516 Budapest, PO Box 245.
Responsible
Publisher
Chief Executive Officer, Akadémiai Kiadó
ISSN 2559-9283 (Online)