Does intraspecific niche partitioning in a native predator influence its response to an invasion by a toxic prey species?


*Present address: School of Biological Sciences A08, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia (Email:


Abstract  The introduced and highly toxic cane toad (Bufo marinus) is rapidly spreading across northern Australia where it may affect populations of large terrestrial vertebrate predators. The ecological impact of cane toads will depend upon the diets, foraging modes and habitat use of native predators, and their feeding responses to cane toads. However, intraspecific niche partitioning may influence the degree of vulnerability of predators to toxic prey, as well as the time course of the impact of alien invaders on native species. We studied the diet of the northern death adder Acanthophis praelongus and their feeding responses to cane toads. In the laboratory, death adders from all size classes and sexes readily consumed frogs and cane toads. Diets of free ranging A. praelongus from the Adelaide River floodplain were more heterogeneous. Juvenile snakes ate mainly frogs (39% of prey items) and small scincid lizards (43%). Both sexes displayed an ontogenetic dietary shift from lizards to mammals, but adult males fed on frogs (49%) and mammals (39%) whereas adult females (which grew larger than males) fed mainly on mammals (91%) and occasionally, frogs (9%). Feeding rates and body condition of adult snakes varied temporally and tracked fluctuations in prey availability. These results suggest that cane toads may negatively affect populations of northern death adders in the Darwin region. However, we predict that different size and sex classes of A. praelongus will experience differential mortality rates over different timescales. The initial invasion of large toads may affect adult males, but juveniles may be unaffected until juvenile toads appear the following year, and major affects on adult female death adders may be delayed until annual rainfall fluctuations reduce the availability of alternative (rodent) prey.