Wildlife Research Wildlife Research Society
Ecology, management and conservation in natural and modified habitats
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Predation on toxic cane toads (Bufo marinus) may imperil bluetongue lizards (Tiliqua scincoides intermedia, Scincidae) in tropical Australia

Samantha J. Price-Rees A , Gregory P. Brown A and Richard Shine A B

A School of Biological Sciences A08, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.

B Corresponding author. Email: rick.shine@sydney.edu.au

Wildlife Research 37(2) 166-173 http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WR09170
Submitted: 4 December 2009  Accepted: 8 February 2010   Published: 16 April 2010

Abstract

Context. Detecting ecological impacts of invasive species can be extremely difficult. Even major population declines may be undetectable without extensive long-term data if the affected taxon is rare and/or difficult to census, and exhibits stochastic variation in abundance as a result of other factors. Our data suggest such a situation in an iconic Australian reptile species, the bluetongue lizard. Originally restricted to Central and South America, cane toads (Bufo marinus) are rapidly spreading through tropical Australia. Most native predators have no evolutionary history of exposure to the toads’ distinctive chemical defences (bufadienolides), and many varanid lizards, elapid snakes, crocodiles and marsupials have been killed when they have attempted to consume toads.

Aims. Scincid lizards have not been considered vulnerable to toad invasion; however, one lineage (the bluetongues, genus Tiliqua) consists of large omnivores that may be affected. Our field and laboratory research aimed to elucidate this concern.

Methods. Nightly surveys for bluetongue lizards (Tiliqua scincoides intermedia) and cane toads were conducted along two adjacent roadways on the Adelaide River floodplain of the Northern Territory. Scent discrimination trials in the laboratory assessed lizard responses to chemical cues from three food types (native frogs, cane toads and ‘preferred foods’) by counting tongue-flicks and biting elicited by cotton swabs. A subset of lizards was presented with live toads.

Key results. Numbers of bluetongues encountered during standardised field surveys in the Darwin region declined soon after toads arrived, and we have not recorded a single lizard for the last 20 months. In the laboratory, foraging responses of bluetongues were as intense to cane-toad scent as to the scent of native frogs, and many of the lizards we tested attempted to consume toads, and were poisoned as a result.

Conclusions and implications. The population decline of bluetongues in this region appears to have been the direct result of fatal ingestion of toxic cane toads. Our studies thus add a scincid lizard species to the list of native Australian predators imperilled by cane-toad invasion, and point to the difficulty of detecting invader impact even for an iconic species in a system subject to detailed survey work.

Additional keywords: ecological impact, invasive species, Rhinella marina, Tiliqua intermedia, toxicity.


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