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School for Skinks: Can Conditioned Taste Aversion Enable Bluetongue Lizards (Tiliqua scincoides) to Avoid Toxic Cane Toads (Rhinella marina) as Prey?


Richard Shine, School of Biological Sciences A08, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.


The invasion of cane toads (Rhinella marina) through Australia imperils native predators that are killed if they consume these toxic anurans. The magnitude of impact depends upon the predators’ capacity for aversion learning: toad impact is lower if predators can learn not to attack toads. In laboratory trials, we assessed whether bluetongue lizards (Tiliqua scincoides) – a species under severe threat from toads – are capable of learned taste aversion and whether we can facilitate that learning by exposing lizards to toad tissue combined with a nausea-inducing chemical (lithium chloride). Captive bluetongues rapidly learned to avoid the ‘unpalatable’ food. Taste aversion also developed (albeit less strongly) in response to meals of minced cane toad alone. Our data suggest that taste aversion learning may help bluetongue lizards survive the onslaught of cane toads, but that many encounters will be fatal because the toxin content of toads is so high relative to lizard tolerance of those toxins. Thus, baiting with nausea-inducing (but non-lethal) toad products might provide a feasible management option to reduce the impact of cane toad invasion on these native predators.

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