Audio: Dr Rick Shine in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty
It ranks as one of the most significant mistakes in our agricultural history. When cane toads were introduced into Australia 80 years ago, the hope was that they would control some of the bugs affecting sugar cane crops. They did far more than that. Cane toads are one of the most prolific and destructive exotic (introduced) species we know.
Originally from the Brazilian rainforest, they were introduced to a single pond in north Queensland and have quickly spread as far as the Kimberleys in Western Australia. As they migrate across our Great Southern Land, this ugly and highly poisonous toad can have a devastating effect on native species.
Many researchers are investigating the cane toad’s rapid advance, and the research is yielding fascinating results, among them Sydney University biologist Professor Rick Shine. Professor Shine and his team are learning how to, for want of a better expression, inoculate local species against the advancing cane toad to minimise the effects on native fauna.
Among their biological tools is the cane toad sausage. Seriously. Such efforts to control the advance of an invasive species like the cane toad is an act of stewardship and even redemption – making good for past mistakes and restoring our own unique environment.
This is also fantastic science at work. By studying cane toads on opposite sides of the country, Professor Shine believes he has observed a new mechanism of evolution — one not proposed by Charles Darwin.
After 80 years, corresponding with 80 generations of cane toad development, identifiable and replicable genetic and behavioural differences exist between the original stock of Queensland cane toads and their WA counterparts.
On Open House we had a fascinating discussion with Dr Rick Shine that encompassed evolution, science, faith and stewardship.