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Ecosystems: Biodiversity & Endangerment

Consider the Cane Toad


Instead of jumping immediately to eradication, some scientists believe we have to handle invasive
species in a different way.

By Maggie Koerth-Baker | February 5, 2014

The enormous, warty and brown cane toad was introduced to Australia intentionally in 1935 as a form
of natural pest control it was supposed to eat native beetles that threatened the profitability of sugar
plantations. Unfortunately, the toads never got a taste for beetles. They did, however, turn out to have
a rambling bone. Theyre also poisonous to predators. The result is a huge amphibian (adults can weigh
as much as 4 pounds) that can travel as far as 25 miles in a year, leaving a trail of dead and injured
animals especially snakes in its wake.
The story of the cane toad is a nightmare a classic example of an ecologically devastating invasive
species. In the short term, anyway. But the long term might be different. Thats because the toads dont
exist in a vacuum. They arent just something dropped on top of an existing environment, to be forever
separate from it. Over time, even invasive species become part of the places they invade and the
Ecosystems: Biodiversity & Endangerment


processes of life that happen there. In 2004, researchers from the University of Sydney, New South
Wales, discovered that Australian snakes were changing in ways that made them able to successfully
prey on invasive cane toads. Species with a lot of exposure to the toads in their habitat were trending
toward smaller mouths mouths that made them unable to eat the largest, most poisonous toads.
Instead, those snakes ate smaller, less-poisonous, juvenile toads. And snakes arent the only predators
adapting. Crows have been spotted picking up the toads, flipping them over, and eating the less
poisonous flesh from their bellies.
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While, theoretically, eradicating an invasive species ought to be
cheaper than managing it or adapting to it, thats not necessarily true if
eradication is essentially a never-ending war.
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The point isnt that invasive species are awesome. They frequently do a lot of damage and they remain a
prime example of humans ability to negatively impact the environment. But you cant just think about
the impact of invasives in terms of what you see them doing over the course of a couple of decades.
Theres evidence that, given time, invasives can turn out to have a mixture of positive and negative
effects, like any organism. Whats more, the native animals and plants with which they share a habitat
can, and do, adapt to them, converting dysfunction into a part of a functional albeit changed
system.
Thats important because, with the exception of invasions that were curtailed on small islands, we
havent had much luck eradicating invasive species once theyve gotten a toehold in a new world.
Meanwhile, the financial costs mount. While, theoretically, eradicating an invasive species ought to be
cheaper than managing it or adapting to it, thats not necessarily true if eradication is essentially a
never-ending war. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been trying to eradicate the Mediterranean
fruit fly in California since 1975, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent.
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Simply being native or invasive isnt enough to tell you whether a
species should be eradicated.
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At the same time, we have many examples of the relationship between invasives and their new home
environments functioning in ways that might not warrant an automatic scorched-earth policy.
Endangered southwestern willow flycatchers nest successfully in invasive tamarisk plants. Invasive trees
in Puerto Rico do a better job of establishing forest on heavily degraded former pastures than do native
Ecosystems: Biodiversity & Endangerment


trees, and provide a framework where the native plants can, eventually, take hold. Invasive birds help
spread the seeds of native plants around the Hawaiian islands.
The ability of environments to adapt and the ability of invasives to be beneficial as well as harmful have
led a handful of scientists to begin speaking out about the possibility of handling invasive species in a
different way. Instead of jumping immediately to eradication, they suggest, the ideal course of
treatment should, at least, begin with a more thorough examination of the full range of impacts each
invasive species has on its new home. Simply being native or invasive isnt enough to tell you
whether a species should be eradicated.
As biologist Mark Davis wrote in a 2011 commentary in the journal Nature, Nearly two centuries on
from the introduction of the concept of nativeness, its time for conservationists to focus much more on
the functions of species, and much less on where they originated.













Koerth-Baker, M. (2014). Consider the cane toad. Ensia Magazine. Retrieved from
http://ensia.com/voices/consider-the-cane-toad/