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Predator behaviour and morphology mediates the impact of an invasive species: cane toads and death adders in Australia


B. L. Phillips, School of Biological Sciences A08, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.


The arrival of an invasive species can have severe impacts on native species. The extent of the impact, as well as the speed at which native species may mount an adaptive response, depend upon the correlation between impact and the individual phenotypes of the native species. Strong correlation between phenotype and impact within the native species raises the possibility of rapid adaptive response to the invader. Here, we examine the impact of a dangerous newly arrived prey species (the highly toxic cane toad Bufo marinus) on naïve predators (death adders Acanthophis praelongus) in northern Australia. During laboratory trials and field radiotracking, toads killed 48% of the adders we studied. Long-term monitoring of the population also suggests a massive decline (>89%) in recent years concurrent with the arrival of toads. Variation in snake physiology (resistance to toad toxin) had little bearing on snake survival in the field. Snake behaviour (tendency to attack toads) and morphology (body size and head size), however, were strong predictors of snake survival. Smaller snakes with relatively small heads, and snakes that were unwilling to attack toads in the laboratory, had much higher survival rates in the field. These results show that toads have a massive impact on death adder populations, but that snake phenotypes strongly mediate this impact. Thus natural selection is operating on these adder populations and an adaptive response is a possibility. If these adders can rapidly shift toad-relevant morphological and behavioural traits (either through plastic or evolved means), they will ultimately face a lowered impact from this toxic invader.