Cat food latest weapon against Australia's cane toads

Fri Feb 19, 2010 12:21pm EST
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By Pauline Askin

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A tin of cat food may be the solution to reducing the number of toxic cane toads in Australia, one of the country's major pests which environmentalists have tried for years to stop from killing off the native wildlife.

Scientists from the University of Sydney said that putting cat food close to ponds inhabited by baby cane toads attracts carnivorous ants that are also immune to the toads' poisonous skin. The ants then attack the baby toads and eat them.

"In one spot we tested, 98 percent of the baby toads were attacked within the first two minutes," researcher Rick Shine told Reuters. "It was a bit like a massacre."

Scientist have spent years -- and a significant amount of money -- trying to find ways to get rid of the toxic toad that has plagued Australia's flora and fauna for decades and which is considered one of the country's worse environmental mistakes.

The toads, introduced from Hawaii in 1935 in a bid to control native cane beetles, have led to dramatic declines in populations of native snakes, goanna lizards and quolls, a cat-sized marsupial.

Shine said the study was aimed at boosting the numbers of ants around the breeding areas of cane toads, and not upsetting the ecological balance by introducing the insects to an area that they wouldn't normally be in.

"All we're doing is encouraging the ants to flourish somewhere where they already flourish, letting them know there's particularly good food around so we get more of them down there on a very short-term basis," he said.

"Baby toads are incredibly stupid and their reaction to being attacked is to freeze. I think they're trying to advertise the fact they're poisonous and let the predator get a taste of that, but it doesn't work for the ant because it isn't affected."   Continued...