Australian wildlife ‘traumatized’ into avoiding toxic toad

AFP, SYDNEY

Wed, Nov 28, 2012 - Page 6

Australia’s native animals are being fed nauseating sausages of cane toad meat in a bid to train them against eating the foul, toxic species as it spreads into new areas, researchers said yesterday.

Cane toads — a warty, leathery creature with a venom sac on their heads toxic enough to kill snakes and crocodiles — are advancing across northwestern Australia at a speed of 50km a year.

They were first introduced to Australia from Hawaii to control scarab beetle populations in the 1930s and have now reached pest proportions, breeding prolifically and having few predators.

Native animals, particularly small marsupials and lizards, will die if they eat a full-grown adult and conservationists are attempting to give them a repellent first taste of toad to train them against seeing it as food.

Tiny sausage-shaped baits made of cane toad flesh with the poison removed have been laid out in native quoll, dingo, snake and lizard habitats, laced with a salt that induces instant nausea, forcing the animal to spit it out.

“The animals are therefore likely, if they encounter anything and they bite it and it tastes like a toad, smells like a toad, they’re going to remember back to that horrible experience,” David Pearson, from Western Australia’s Department of Environment and Conservation, told reporters.

Field trials were already showing success, with motion-sensitive cameras at the bait sites recording animals eating and then spitting out the sausages.

Dingoes, a native wild dog, had been seen to “pick up one of these things, go a couple of meters and then spit it out and roll all over it,” Pearson said.

The bait is designed to see native wildlife through the first wave of toads entering a new region. The earliest toads to arrive are usually particularly large and toxic, Pearson added.

Quolls, a carnivorous marsupial also commonly known as the native cat, have become endangered in parts of northern Australia due to the spread of cane toads and Pearson said it could take a local population decades to regenerate, upsetting fragile native ecosystems.

There is no known effective way to kill or control cane toads and Pearson said only the climate — a lack of water or cooled conditions — would act as a natural brake on their rapacious march.

“They’re in the landscape but at least, with these baits, we’ll still have our native predators in the landscape as well,” he said.