Spatial and temporal variation in the morphology (and thus, predicted impact) of an invasive species in Australia


  • Ben L. Phillips,

  • Richard Shine

B. L. Phillips ( and R. Shine, School of Biological Sciences A08, Univ. of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.


The impact of an invasive species is unlikely to be uniform in space or time, due to variation in key traits of the invader (e.g. morphology, physiology, behaviour) as well as in resilience of the local ecosystem. The weak phylogeographic structure typical of an invasive population suggests that much of the variation in an invading taxon is likely to be generated by the environment and recent colonisation history. Here we describe effects of the environment and colonisation history on key morphological traits of an invader (the cane toad Bufo marinus). These “key traits” (body size and relative toxicity) mediate the impact of toads on Australian native predators, which often die as a consequence of ingesting a fatal dose of toad toxin. Measurements of museum specimens collected over >60 yr from a wide area show that seasonal variation in toad body size (due to seasonal recruitment) effectively swamps much of the spatial variance in this trait. However, relative toxicity of toads showed strong spatial variation and little seasonal variation. Thus, the risk to a native predator ingesting a toad will vary on both spatial and temporal scales. For native predators capable of eating a wide range of toad sizes (e.g. quolls, varanid lizards), seasonal variation in overall toad size will be the most significant predictor of risk. In contrast, gape-limited predators restricted to a specific range of toad sizes (such as snakes) will be most strongly affected by the relative toxicity of toads. Gape-limited predators will thus experience strong spatial variation in risk from toad consumption.