Monday 11 January 2016

Monitor lizards trained not to eat toxic cane toads

By Rebecca Morelle
Science Correspondent, BBC News

6 January 2016 

Scientists have devised a radical solution to reduce the damaging impact of Australia's deadly cane toads.

They have trained wild monitor lizards, known locally as goannas, not to eat the toxic amphibians.

They did this by feeding the reptiles small, less potent cane toads. Many that tried the toads once did not make the same mistake again.

The researchers say that extending the trial could help the continent's wildlife.

The study is published in the Royal Society journal, Biology Letters.

Lead researcher Georgia Ward-Fear, from the University of Sydney, said: "We've been very surprised by the results, by the amount of time that some of these lizards have actually retained this knowledge and survived in the presence of a high-density of cane toads, which is basically unheard of in the wild."

Cane toads were introduced to Australia in the 1930s to control sugar cane pests.
But the subsequent spread has been unstoppable, devastating the continent's animals.

A goanna only has to mouth a toad for less than 30 seconds and it can kill themGeorgia Ward-Fear, University of Sydney

Among the hardest hit are the yellow-spotted monitors (Varanus panoptes). Their population is estimated to have plummeted by 90%.

When the toads invade a new area, these yellow-and-black-spotted reptiles feast on the amphibians, and subsequently die.

"A goanna only has to mouth a toad for less than 30 seconds and it can kill them," said Dr Ward-Fear.

"This species is quite abundant in ecosystems ahead of a cane toad invasion, and then as we see the invasion move through, they are basically wiped out of the landscape."

In the trials, the researchers tracked down wild lizards before the toads descended.

Dr Ward-Fear explained: "We presented them with a small toad via our very technical apparatus: a telescopic fishing pole. The toad had a little cotton belt attached to it.

"We sidled up to the goanna in a very stealthy manner and extended the fishing pole."

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