The impacts of a toxic invasive prey species (the cane toad, Rhinella marina) on a vulnerable predator (the lace monitor, Varanus varius)
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The magnitude of impact of an invasive species on native taxa, and the time course of recovery, depend on the native’s ability to adjust to the invader. Here, we examine the impact of a toxic invasive prey species (cane toad Rhinella marina) on a vulnerable top-predator (lace monitor Varanus varius) in southern Australia. Lace monitor populations crash as soon as toads invade, as occurs in related species in tropical Australia. The toad’s impact falls primarily on larger lizards, such that mean body sizes decline precipitously after toad arrival. Feeding trials with free-ranging lizards clarified the reasons for that size-biased vulnerability. Large lizards attacked novel prey more rapidly than did smaller conspecifics, especially in toad-naïve populations. Small lizards were more cautious in investigating novel prey (more tongue flicks and bites prior to ingestion) and swallowed the item more slowly. These traits may allow smaller lizards to detect and avoid toad toxins. Seventy percent of monitors from toad-naïve populations readily consumed dead cane toads (with parotoid glands removed) and 85 % consumed frogs. In contrast, no conspecifics from toad-exposed populations consumed toads whereas 40 % ate frogs. Following a single meal of toxic toad (typically eliciting illness), all monitors refused toads but 40 % continued to eat frogs. Lace monitors thus can rapidly learn taste aversion to cane toads. This behavioral plasticity enables survival of smaller lizards (that approach and process prey more cautiously than their larger relatives), and may explain this species’ recovery in long-term toad-colonized regions of northern Australia.
KeywordsBehavioral plasticity Bufo marinus Invasive species impact Taste aversion learning Varanidae
We thank the staff from New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Services for granting access to study sites. We thank Melanie Elphick for assistance with graphics and formatting. Mathew Crowther assisted with data analysis. This research was conducted with approval from the University of Sydney Animal Ethics Committee (protocol #2013/6043).
This work was supported by funding provided to R. S. by the Australian Research Council (Grant #120100074).
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