Quoll vs Cane Toad - A New Weapon?

  • June 23, 2010
  • By VetShopAustralia.com.au

We all know the old proverb about teaching old dogs new tricks, but what about teaching marsupials new tricks that might save thier life? One study recently published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology certainly suggests it's possible.

The Study by University of Sydney accademics, Professor Rick Shine, Stephanie O'Donnell and Dr Jonathan Webb working in conunction with the Territory Wildlife Park tested whether quolls could be taught to avoid eating cane toads through a process called "conditioned taste aversion" (CTA).

Cane toads are highly toxic when eaten and have driven the northern quoll to extinction in many parts of northern Australia.

The main problem for predators like the quoll is that they eat large toads, which usually kill the quolls rather than merely making them feel nauseous. Consequently, most predators do not learn to avoid toads as food.

The research used a group of 62 young quolls and taught half to associate eating a cane toad with feeling sick.

A few days before the quolls were reintroduced to the wild, members of the treated group were fed a small dead cane toad laced with nausea-inducing thiabendazole. The cane toad, which weighed less than 2 grams, was not large enough to kill the quoll but the chemical made them feel sick.

Dr Webb and his colleagues found that CTA made the quolls less likely to attack the toad in the plastic container and once released into the wild, the toad-smart quolls survived up to five times longer than "toad-naive" quolls.

According to the researchers, the next challenge is to see if it is possible can scale up the results to really make a difference to wild populations of endangered predators like quolls, goannas and bluetongue lizards.

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