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Nativ e to the broader Caribbean region be-tween southern Florida and northern South America, but purposely introduced into Australia and other regions, cane toads have provided a pointed illustration of the dangers of introducing species to a new environment, even for very well-intentioned reasons. Large toads with almost omnivorous appetites, cane toads breed prolifically and have proven adaptable to a fairly broad range of environments from coastal mangrove swamps to rainforests, from grasslands to marginal woodlands, and from agricultural areas to urban lots. On its shoulders, the cane toad has pronounced parotoid glands, from which it releases a very toxic poison. Although some predators such as keelback snakes, wolf spiders, fresh-water crayfish, saltwater crocodiles, crows, several other types of birds, and several types of rats can tolerate the toad’s poison, it is fatal to most mammals, lizards, and snakes that try to kill and eat the toad. Thus, under most conditions, the population of cane toads is almost impossible to control.
The cane toad has become a pest of monstrous proportions in Australia, where, ironically, scientists introduced it to control other pests. In the mid-1930s, the larva of two types of beetles, the French’s Cane Beetle and the Greyback Cane Beetle, were devastating Queensland’s main cash crop, sugar cane, by attacking the plant’s roots. The Australian Bureau of Sugar Experimental Stations introduced various predators to control the beetle larvae, and in 1935, 100 cane toads were imported from Hawaii to the Meringa Experimental Station located near Cairns. The toads proved extraordinarily effective against the beetle larvae, and the operators of the station received permission to release about 3,000 toads into the fields of several local sugar cane plantations. Protests by some leading entomologists caused a moratorium on further releases of the toads, but the commercial pressure to protect the sugar cane crop ultimately outweighed opponents’ evidence that the cane toad might very well become a worse pest than the beetle larvae. By the late 1930s, the toads were being released across Queensland.
There are now millions of cane toads in Australia, and their range has extended beyond Queensland and into the Northern Territory. In addition to the beetle larvae, cane toads will eat almost any insect, other amphibians, most small reptiles, some small mammals, and even cat and dog food. In their native range, the toad population is controlled by several snakes, for which they have become the primary food source. But Australians, from specialists to the general public, are naturally skeptical about the introduction of any more non-native species. They have proven a bane to domestic pets with which they have increasingly come into contact and to native species with whom they compete voraciously for food sources. More broadly, the cane toads have become a sort of grim national joke, with canny entrepreneurs creating all sorts of souvenir items featuring the toads for sale to tourists, both from other Australian states and from overseas.
Despite its almost universal vilification, the cane toad has some potential benefits. It is widely used in schools and universities for dissection lessons because of its size and the ease with its tissues can be incised. Its hide has proven to be commercially viable material for making attractive “leather” items such as purses, belts, and shoes. And, lastly, its venom is being studied because it contains many chemical compounds with a broad range of possible pharmacological applications.
- Ian Anderson, “No Stopping Them,” New Scientist (Aug. 1998);
- John Eliot,”Revenge of the Cane Toads,” National Geographic (March 2005);
- Constance Holden, “Plague of Toads Down Under,” Science (Aug. 2005);
- Christopher Lever, The Cane Toad: The History and Ecology of a Successful Colonist (Westbury Academic and Scientific Publishing, 2001);
- Tim Low, Feral Future: The Untold Story of Australia’s Exotic Invaders (University of Chicago Press, 2002);
- Peter Monaghan, “Cane Toads: Faster, Bigger, Scarier,” Chronicle of Higher Education (Feb. 2006);
- Park, “Way Down Under, It’s Revenge of the (Yech!) Cane Toads,” Smithsonian (Oct. 1990).