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Cane toad myths

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This Cane Toad was found in Sydney.  Photo from Lothar Voigt    

Dr Arthur White explores some of the myths that have developed about one of Australia’s most notorious introduced species – the cane toad.    
It is hard to believe that when cane toads were first introduced as the saviour of Queensland cane fields special state legislation was introduced to protect them, as they were seen to be the solution to a doomed industry, despite the advice of scientists at the time. This short 80 year history has fed the fear and paranoia of many Australians, probably fuelled by the cane toad’s spectacular failure in achieving its biological aim of controlling the sugar cane beetle.

One of the best examples of the way that Australians saw cane toads was the documentary Cane Toads, an Unnatural History.

Conceived as a factual account, the movie ended up being a satirical take on Australia’s reaction to the introduction of cane toads, zeroing in on bizarre aspects of the Australian psyche. The segment where children dress up cane toads as dolls, made famous by the 2kg toad named Dairy Queen, is a classic in this Australian documentary. Find out more about this often hilarious documentary which is still available through ABC Shops.

Above: Little Monica holds Dairy Queen. Photographer: Mantis Wildlife films
Can touching Cane Toads poison you or make you sick?
Dr White says that a lot of myths revolve around cane toad poison. A widely held myth is that touching a cane toad results in serious medical problems. He says that whilst it is true that these toads secrete poison, the poison needs to be transferred to human organs such as the mouth or eyes for it to do damage. So, sucking your thumb or rubbing your eyes after touching a cane toad is not recommended, nor is touching an open wound, but the real facts have been misconstrued into an apparent tactile danger which does not exist scientifically. Indeed, cane toad toxins are highly water soluble, meaning they are easily washed off.

Can Cane Toads squirt their poison at you?
nother myth is that cane toads can actually squirt their venom out of their glands up to a distance of one metre. This myth was further enhanced by accounts of cane toads orienting their bodies so that the venom was aimed at the victim’s eyes. Apart from being a truly remarkable attack mechanism from any animal, this is not the case in cane toads. The poison released does last for up to a week but there is no evidence of strategic attack.


Is it a fact that Cane Toads can change their sex?
One of the most unusual myths relates to the cane toad’s ability to change sex. This seems to be based on observations that it is only males that first arrive at breeding grounds, thereby requiring some toads to change sex in order for breeding to take place. Indeed, female cane toads are larger than males and, given that it is not easy to spot the difference, it is likely that it is the egg-laying females that get to the watery breeding ground first. In the cane toad invasion of the Northern Territory, both sexes formed the vanguard, ensuring quick breeding before their progeny took over a year or two later,


Can Cane Toads poison my pet dog?
One “myth”, however, is based on truth and that is that cane toads can kill your cats and dogs. Cane toads exude their poison through their skin, something they do whenever they are touched. In the case of domestic animals such as cats and dogs, picking up the toad in their mouths could lead to ingestion of the poison, ultimately killing them. Death from cane toads is a fact of life for lots of Australia’s wildlife, including snakes, birds of prey, goannas and lizards.

Cane Toads don't even eat cane beetles
Perhaps one of the first myths to develop was that the cane toad didn’t like eating the sugar cane beetle. In a way this myth can be understood because the toads soon broke out of the cane fields and began enjoying the huge food resources outside the plantations. Queensland cane plantations were vastly different form the contained fields of Hawaii and Puerto Rico (where the toad really did contain the sugar cane beetle) and the introduced species quickly adapted to Australia’s limitless food and boundaries.

Unlike our native frogs, Cane Toads can survive without water
A surprising myth that arose is that cane toads could survive without water. Whilst it is true that cane toads are often found in dry and dusty areas, they can only survive for relatively short periods without water. Their thick, tough skin means that they don’t lose as much water directly to the outside, but they will still die from dehydration after a day or two.


Cane Toads hypnotise their prey to catch them
The most fascinating myth to have gained credence is that cane toads can hypnotise their victims. This is based on observations that intended victims, such as a lizard or a snake, make no attempts to escape the toad when in its vicinity. The facts speak otherwise. Cane toads, like a lot of other animals, are known as ambush predators, relying on a strategy of stealth to attack prey. In this instance, the cane toad remains very still, relying on the movement of its prey to detect its presence before attack.

All of these stories are a fascinating insight into the biological myths that have developed around the cane toad. It is interesting that there is a common thread to all these myths, in this case the demonisation of the cane toad. The failure of this introduced species is now widely known, but the cane toad’s reputation is the result of human fallibility, which these days hardly rates a mention.

Text: V.B. March 2008

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