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201323Mar13:15

Quoll trained to sur­vive by avoid­ing poi­so­nous Cane toads

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pub­lished 23 March 2013 | mod­i­fied 07 March 2014
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QuollThe endan­gered North­ern Quoll (Dasyu­rus hal­lu­ca­tus), a noc­tur­nal mar­su­pial preda­tor, is under attack from the cane toad — a lethally poi­so­nous prey — but a rad­i­cal solu­tion is at hand.

In a research pro­gram and under cap­tive con­di­tions the small mar­su­pial is taught to be “toad-​smart” by feed­ing it non-​lethal amounts of toad will result in quolls teach­ing their off­spring to avoid live cane toads in the wild.

Unde­ni­ably charis­matic, the North­ern Quoll’s big black eyes and impos­si­bly long whiskers belie the face of this small preda­tor that has — as con­ser­va­tion biol­o­gist Dr Jonathan Webb dis­cov­ered — very sharp teeth.

“I received a nasty bite from a North­ern Quoll … iron­i­cally it was a female and they’re nor­mally much calmer and less aggres­sive than the males,” says Dr Webb, of the School of the Envi­ron­ment at Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy Syd­ney (UTS).

What the quoll couldn’t know was that she had just bit­ten the hand of the very per­son whose research could save her and the entire crit­i­cally endan­gered species.

Like many of Australia’s small mar­su­pial mam­mals, the North­ern Quoll is under seri­ous threat of extinc­tion from habi­tat destruc­tion, feral cats and chang­ing fire man­age­ment. It is clas­si­fied Endan­gered accord­ing the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species™.

How­ever, it is the newest pest on the block, the lethally poi­so­nous cane toad, which jumped across Kakadu National Park bound­aries in 2001, that has dec­i­mated quoll numbers.

Quolls have no phys­i­o­log­i­cal resis­tance to toad toxin and die after [try­ing to eat] large toads. In many parts of the Top End quolls have dis­ap­peared com­pletely since the arrival of cane toads
Dr Webb, School of the Envi­ron­ment, UTS »

Dr Webb and col­leagues from the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney have shown that quolls reared in cap­tiv­ity can be trained to avoid eat­ing the toads — train­ing known as taste aver­sion ther­apy.

In a 2010 project, researchers cut up dead toads, skinned the legs and dis­carded the poi­so­nous parts of the toad. A small, non-​lethal amount of toad was mixed with a nausea-​inducing chem­i­cal and then stuffed into the leg skin cre­at­ing what can only be described as a cane toad sausage. The sausage was fed to the quolls leav­ing them feel­ing mildly sick. Pre­sented with a sec­ond help­ing of sausage the next day, many of the nor­mally rapa­cious car­ni­vores rejected the bait. Some of the trained quolls also refused to attack live cane toads.


Quoll school — How to train a quoll? (credit ABC Tele­vi­sion, Cat­a­lyst):



The sub­se­quent release of “toad-​smart” quolls into the wild (in a study also involv­ing the Ter­ri­tory Wildlife Park and Kakadu National Park) will hope­fully show that the quolls can teach their off­spring to exclude cane toads from the din­ner menu, and there­fore help ensure the quoll’s long-​term sur­vival.

Mon­i­tor­ing by PhD stu­dent Teigen Cre­mona shows that some of the females have sur­vived in the wild for more than two years, while genetic pater­nity analy­sis by Mur­doch University’s Dr Peter Spencer has iden­ti­fied descen­dants of the orig­i­nal “toad-​smart” quolls, says Dr Webb. This Kakadu project, sup­ported by the Aus­tralian Research Coun­cil, the Mazda Foun­da­tion and National Geo­graphic, so caught the imag­i­na­tion of renowned British nat­u­ral­ist and con­ser­va­tion­ist Sir David Atten­bor­ough that he included the North­ern Quoll among 10 ani­mals he has cho­sen to “save”, in his lat­est wildlife doc­u­men­tary Attenborough’s Ark.

Dr Webb is doing fur­ther research with the Aus­tralian Wildlife Con­ser­vancy (AWC) at its Morn­ing­ton Sanc­tu­ary in the Kim­ber­ley region of north-​western Aus­tralia. The sanc­tu­ary is free of cane toads, and quoll num­bers there are strong. But the toads are esti­mated to be liv­ing as close as 50 kilo­me­tres away, accord­ing to AWC senior wildlife ecol­o­gist Dr Kather­ine Tuft.

We’re gear­ing up for their arrival, which we think will be either this wet sea­son or the one after,” says Dr Tuft. We’ve been pay­ing close atten­tion to Jonathan’s North­ern Ter­ri­tory research and we felt this was a good oppor­tu­nity to test a wild quoll pop­u­la­tion that has been trained to avoid cane toads ahead of the pre­dicted toad inva­sion.”

This new pro­gram will give Dr Webb and his col­lab­o­ra­tors a chance to study a rel­a­tively large quoll pop­u­la­tion before and after it comes in con­tact with the toads. It’s also a chance to pro­tect a quoll pop­u­la­tion under threat in one of its last strong­holds.

Train­ing quolls to avoid eat­ing toads is not a 100 per cent solu­tion but it offers some hope that we can keep this small, beau­ti­ful mar­su­pial car­ni­vore in the land­scape,” says Dr Webb. “If we can keep the mums in the sys­tem long enough so they can repro­duce and even pass on their knowl­edge to their daugh­ters we may be able to pre­vent more local extinc­tions.”


The above news item is reprinted from mate­ri­als avail­able at UTS News­room and ABC Tele­vi­son Cat­a­lyst. Orig­i­nal text may be edited for con­tent and length.
(Source: UTS News­room, 20.03.2013)

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