How dodgy sausages are saving a cute marsupial from toxic toads | AI
In a true-life alien versus predator story, a touch of food poisoning could save an endangered Australian species from a relentless toxic tide
RICK SHINE can’t stand the smell of whisky. His aversion stems from a youthful excess of the spirit that left him puking. That was more than five decades ago. Now the evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney is trying to trigger the same sickness-induced repulsion in Australian predators. It’s not that they have a drinking problem. But they do need to learn to avoid another noxious substance: cane toads.
These large amphibians are a massive nuisance. Some 80 years ago, a few were transported from Hawaii to Queensland in north-eastern Australia to gobble up pests that were damaging fields of sugar cane. Today, perhaps as many as 1.5 billion of them cover northern Australia. It’s like a cheap all-you-can-eat buffet for native carnivores – one that comes with guaranteed food poisoning. When threatened, the toads secrete venom from glands on their shoulders that is strong enough to kill many predators on the spot. As a result, cane toads are decimating populations of native species including lizards, freshwater crocodiles and the northern quoll, a now endangered marsupial. Shine hopes he can save the predators’ lives by putting them off cane toads in much the same way he acquired his loathing of whisky.
It is not the first time conservationists have tried this approach, formally known as conditioned taste aversion. In 2011, wildlife biologist Bill Given had the idea of trying it out on lions. Their drastic decline is partly down to a taste for livestock, which leads farmers to shoot them. So Given began feeding beef laced with a nauseating toxin …