Halting the cane toad march

By Tim Groenendyk

North Eastern NSW is now home to one of Australia’s most infamous invaders – the poisonous cane toad. Partnering with several organisations on an ARC Linkage grant
, Rick Shine hopes to gain a greater understanding of this new incursion whilst also combating the toad’s harmful impact on native species.

Rick Shine

This ‘classic Linkage’ project, as Shine describes it, seeks to generate outcomes for both partners and researchers.

Rick Shine, building upon his previous research on the Northern Territory cane toad invasion, recognises that new challenges imposed on the amphibian also means new challenges in his NSW research.

“It’s going to be a very different set of interactions for the toad: it’s colder, there’s very different fauna, the toads are often in quite isolated populations, there’s different constraints on their reproduction and so on,” said Shine.

Cane toads have proven repeatedly to be ‘superb evolutionary machines’, adjusting to new environments much more rapidly than native species can.

However, using a technique that has shown great success in his previous research called ‘rapid aversion learning’, Shine has demonstrated that native species can be taught to avoid cane toads.

Shine is also concerned with predicting how far the invasion will advance across the country. Although the southward invasion front is relatively slow, enclaves have been established in Sydney - for example in Taren Point – by stowaway toads hopping onto southbound trucks.

Partnered on this Linkage, entitled ‘Ecology, impact and control of cane toads on the southern invasion front’, are the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Foundation for Australia's Most Endangered Species Inc (FAME), Lismore City Council, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Northern Rivers Catchment Management Authority, and the Tweed Shire Council.

The councils offer direct access to local expertise and, Shine explains, “a very seamless entry into working up in that part of the world, where we haven’t done much research before.”

This ‘classic Linkage’ project, as Shine describes it, seeks to generate outcomes for both partners and researchers.

“The partners would love to know how to get rid of toads and how to keep the endangered native species. At the same time it builds on our understanding of the process of biological invasion.”

Having undertaken two previous Linkages on cane toads Professor Shine said it was difficult to find new industry partners. He owes a great deal of thanks to colleague Postdoctoral Fellow Matthew Greenlees, who is employed for five years through this Linkage project. Greenlees willingly knocked on doors to drum up support.

“One of the ways that we can increase the number of linkage applications at Sydney is to make students in Matt’s position aware that if they’re prepared to go out and do the stuff which academics hate to do - which is to knock on doors and say ‘would you be interested enough to throw money at this?’ - then it can all happen,” said Professor Shine.

Partnerships can arise in most unexpected ways. Following a speech given by Professor Shine at the opening of an art exhibition on Sydney’s north shore, the director of FAME introduced herself.

“Because she was interested in the ecological side of the exhibition we got talking to her. And before long, we had them as a new industry partner."