Monday, February 22, 2010

Bad animals as a weapon against bad animals

Sometime it seems that this blog could just as well be called "Humans never learning," but as we saw in the previous post, there are some exceptions, where people have stood up to bad animal behavior instead of making excuses for it.

Now, in an interesting twist on this, humans are actually using bad animals against bad animals in Australia.

Humans often do animals the favor of broadening their horizons by taking them to see the world, and typically, animals tend to repay this by devastating their new homes. We've seen this in the case of the brown tree snake in Guam, which has basically eaten all the native wildlife as well as committing various offenses more directly against humans.

Another famous example is the cane toad. Farmers brought cane toads to Australia in the 1930s, and, in exchange for a whole new continent to live on, they asked only that the toads eat a certain beetle that infests sugar cane fields. Seems like a fair deal, right?

Instead, the toads pretty much ignored the beetles and instead have spread over Australia, devastating the native wildlife, as you can learn in the book and movie Cane Toads: An Unnatural History, which I highly recommend as a true cinematic milestone in the documentation of bad animal behavior.

Years of attempts to control the invading amphibians have failed, but now scientists may have found a simple solution: a little cat food, which gets you the help of an extremely nasty little insect, the carnivorous meat ant.

As reported by The Telegraph:

"It's not exactly rocket science. We went out and put out a little bit of cat food right beside the area where the baby toads were coming out of the ponds," University of Sydney professor Rick Shine told public broadcaster ABC.

"The ants rapidly discovered the cat food and thought it tasted great."

Attracted by the cat food, the ants also mercilessly attack the baby toads, eliminating about 70% of them immediately, and most of the toads that escape the initial attack die later as well.

Targeting the toads as they hatch is a particularly efficient approach, since the eggs are laid in huge masses and tens of thousands of young may be emerging at the same time. And the ants have an important quality: they're impervious to the toxins that the toads use to defend themselves from predators.

It sounds foolproof, but I'd watch out for one thing: how are those ants going to "thank" us later for the fantastic free meals?

Check out this site for a terrifying closeup of the meat ant (scroll down past the perfectly innocuous meat ant researcher) as well as tons of information direct from cane toad experts, and here you can read about the new sequel to the Cane Toads movie.

Ominous closeup of a cane toad where it ought to be, in central America, by Flickr user Brian Gratwicke.

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