Often, species become endangered because of multiple stressors, with habitat destruction taking the prize as the most egregious. However, often what pushes a species into extinction is not the main driver of endangerment. For example, passenger pigeon numbers were decimated by unabated hunting, but the proximate cause of extinction was likely an inability to thrive in low densities. Yet, seldom is the case where a known single species interaction is the primary cause of engangerment and maybe extinction. The northern quoll, Dasyurus hallucatus, is an endangered marsupial predator in Australia. The current major threat to the northern quoll is the invasion of toxic can toads. Quolls, being predators of small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, readily attacks cane toads, which are toxic to quolls. Quoll populations have disappeared from areas invaded by cane toads, and extinction seems almost inevitable.
Given that the spread of cane toads into the remaining quoll habitats is inevitable, research, led by Stephanie O'donnell in Richard Shine's lab at the University of Sydney and published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, is underway to train quoll's to avoid cane toads. These researchers feed a subset of captive quolls dead toads laced with thiabendazole, a chemical that induces nausea. They then fitted individuals with radio collars and released these toad-smart quolls as well as toad naive ones. Some toad-naive quolls died quickly, after attacking cane toads. Only 58% of male naive quolls survived, while 88% of toad-smart males survived. While females seemed less likely to attack toads, 84% of naive females survived and 94% of toad-smart females survived!
See the video of a toad-smart quoll deciding not to eat a cane toad, its pretty cool.
O’Donnell, S., Webb, J., & Shine, R. (2010). Conditioned taste aversion enhances the survival of an endangered predator imperilled by a toxic invader Journal of Applied Ecology DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2010.01802.x