Cane-toad sausages fed to quolls to save lives

16 February 2010

In an innovative effort to save endangered quolls from extinction, University of Sydney biological scientist Stephanie O'Donnell is feeding them poisonous cane toad sausages.

Quolls. Credit: Jonathan Webb.
Quolls. Credit: Jonathan Webb.

The sausages, made from minced cane toad legs, are laced with a chemical designed to make the quolls feel sick. After their unpleasant experience with the sausages, quolls are likely to avoid eating poisonous cane toads in the wild. Research has suggested that a quarter of quolls will avoid eating a cane toad if they have sampled one of these sausages.

O'Donnell is a researcher for The University of Sydney's Shine Lab, which focuses on evolutionary ecology in reptiles. According to ARC Federation Fellow and head of the Shine Lab, Professor Rick Shine, O'Donnell's research is invaluable to the ensuring the future of Australia's quolls.

"Quolls have largely disappeared from the areas where cane toads occur," he explains. "We know from Stephanie's work that if you don't train quolls to leave toads alone they're very likely to eat the first toad they encounter and die as a result."

Cane toads, which use poisonous glands in their back as a defence against predators, are rapidly spreading across the quoll's natural habitat. O'Donnell's research for the Shine Lab (in co-operation with the Territory Wildlife Park and the Federal Government's Caring for our Country initiative) aims to tackle the threat of cane toads to quolls by training their predators rather than controlling the cane toad population.

"The big picture story is that in trying to save the wildlife from cane toads just about all of the effort has gone into controlling the cane toad population," Professor Shine says. In contrast, O'Donnell's research employs a more feasible strategy of training quolls before cane toads arrive, allowing them to colonise the area before the new threat is introduced.

"We have to come up with something we can do immediately that doesn't rely on getting rid of every toad. Changing the behaviour of the predators is the new approach and so far the results are really encouraging," says Professor Shine.

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