Sunday, May 21, 2017

Some monitor lizards have not recovered from the introduction of the cane toad

Varanus panoptes Image credit: Greg Hume

The impact of invasive species is often underestimated by many. However, invasives can trigger trophic cascades in animal communities but published cases documenting the results of removing top predators are extremely rare. An exception is the invasive cane toad (Rhinella marina) in Australia, which has caused severe population declines in monitor lizards, triggering trophic cascades that facilitated dramatic and sometimes unexpected increases in several prey of the predators, including smaller lizards, snakes, turtles, crocodiles, and birds. Persistence of isolated populations of predators with a decades-long co-existence with toads suggests the possibility of recovery, but alternative explanations are possible. In a new paper, Doody et al. (2017)  note that confirming predator recovery requires longer-term study of populations with both baseline and immediate post-invasion densities. The authors had previously quantified the short-term impacts of the invasive cane toads over seven years at two sites in tropical Australia. In the new paper, they test the hypothesis that predators have begun to recover by repeating the study 12 years after the initial toad invasion. The three predatory lizards (Varanus panoptes, V. mertensi, V. mitchelli) that experienced 71-97% declines in the short-term study showed no sign of recovery, and indeed a worse fate. Two of the three species  (Varanus panoptes and V. mitchelli) were no longer detectable in 630 km of river surveys, suggesting local extirpation. Two mesopredators that had increased markedly in the short-term due to the above predator losses showed diverse responses in the medium-term; a small lizard species increased by about 500%, while populations of a snake species showed little change. Their results indicate a system still in ecological turmoil, having not yet reached a ‘new equilibrium’ more than a decade after the initial invasion; predator losses due to this toxic invasive species, and thus downstream effects, were not transient. Given that cane toads have proven too prolific to eradicate or control, we suggest that recovery of impacted predators must occur unassisted by evolutionary means: dispersal into extinction sites from surviving populations with alleles for toxin resistance or toad avoidance. Evolution and subsequent dispersal may be the only solution for a number of species or communities affected by invasive species for which control is either prohibitively expensive, or not possible.

Doody JS, Rhind D, Green B, Castellano C, McHenry C, Clulow S. 2017. Chronic effects of an invasive species on an animal community. Ecology. 2017 May 6.

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