Reducing the impacts of Cane Toads on Northern Quolls


Drs Ben Phillips and Jonathon Webb are implementing an exciting research project that has the potential to limit the impact that cane toads are having on Northern Quoll in Western Australia.

As we all know, cane toads have moved from northern Queensland across the top of the Northern Territory and are now impacting on the native fauna in the Kimberley. Lots of alternative control options have been explored, with little obvious success, but this idea might work in reducing the impact this pest species has on Northern Quolls.

As background, there are several populations of Northern Quolls persisting in areas where toads have been for more than 70 years and we know that Northern Quolls can be ‘taught’ to avoid eating cane toads (O’Donnell et al. 2010; Rewilding Australia 2016; Discovery Communication 2016). Whether this aversion of eating cane toads is genetic or culturally transmitted is of interest, but it doesn’t really matter if it works. These two factors when combined, can provide a path forward to ensuring Northern Quolls persist after the invasion of the cane toad.

Queensland ‘toad smart’ Northern Quolls will be bred with Northern Territory Northern Quolls (i.e. hybrid population) and placed on an island known to have a population of cane toads. Following a few generations in that environment, this population should be both cane ‘toad savy’ and carrying genes from Northern Territory and Queensland. These ‘hybrid’ Northern Quolls could then be used for reintroduction programs. Let’s hope the theory works in practice, and it could arrest the current decline in Northern Quolls.

Extinction is forever, but this is something many people don’t take seriously in a world where species are under pressure due to climate change, an onslaught of invasive species and anthropogenic impacts. This innovative genetic approach to species survival is another technique we can use to minimise the chances of threatened species going extinct, and by careful use of genetically motivated translocations increase the species’ ability to persist and adapt in a rapidly changing world.

quoll in a cagequoll

Dr Ben Phillips is an evolutionary ecologist who specialises in ecological modelling, invasive species, and understanding ecological adaption to climate change.

Dr Jonathon Webb is a wildlife ecologist with interests in conservation biology, wildlife management, animal behaviour, and physiological and behavioural ecology.

Thanks to Ben for providing the material to write this post.


O’Donnell, S., J. K. Webb, and R. Shine. 2010. Conditioned taste aversion enhances the survival of an endangered predator imperilled by a toxic invader. Journal of Applied Ecology 47:558-565

Photo credit: Top – Northern Quoll (Edward Swinhoe) and bottom – Northern Quolls used as part of this study (Ben Phillips)

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2 Responses to “Reducing the impacts of Cane Toads on Northern Quolls”

  1. Floora de Wit on May 25th, 2016 10:41 am

    I would like to see some cane toad management implemented to prevent these nasty critters from reaching the south-west. Have you heard of anything of the sort happening? It seems ot be a classic case of ‘pass-the-buck’ at the moment, with no one taking responsibility. Maybe a quarantine procedure could avoid trucks moving it from north to south. I’ve already heard of cases where cane toads have arrived at Perth airport. Scary

  2. Scott Thompson on May 25th, 2016 11:05 am


    You always have a good question…

    There are quarantine arrangements in the Kimberley and north-west using detection dogs and random truck and bag searches, however, the effort that is applied will not be sufficient for a 100% stop to the movement of the toad. Physical barriers don’t work, so biological, genetic, chemical or ecological modification alternatives seem to be the best approach but need further research. Sadly, the issue doesn’t get a huge amount of funding as it doesn’t directly impact on agriculture and by the time it impacts on tourism or the environment (in the view of government) it will be too large to handle. As always a humane integrated pest management solution which prevents a problem is the best solution. If this is not possible, we are left to strategies for eradication, containment or worst case-scenario asset-based protection.

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