Australia: How litter hens learned to wash away poisonous toads

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dated: 2022-11-24 18:44:23 .

An ibis was spotted eating a toad at Logan, near Brisbane

Few Australian animals are more despised than the white ibis.

It has earned the nickname “garbage chicken” due to its tendency to forage for food anywhere – cleaning up trash and often stealing food directly from people’s hands.

But the native bird may have figured out how to shake off its bad reputation.

He came up with an “ingenious” way to eat one of the few animals Australians hate anymore – the toad, a poisonous and ubiquitous nuisance.

First introduced to Australia in the 1930s, toads have no natural predators in the country and have had a devastating impact on native animal populations.

The toad’s skin contains a poison that it releases when threatened, causing most animals that come into contact with it to die quickly of heart attacks.

Hence Emily Vincent’s surprise when community members started sending her pictures and videos of ibises “playing” with amphibians.

Ms Vincent, who heads invasive species programs at environmental organization Watergum, says the behavior has been reported along Australia’s east coast.

“The ibises were throwing toads around, throwing them in the air and people were just wondering what on earth they were doing,” she told the BBC.

“After that, they always either wiped the toads in the wet grass or went to a nearby water source and washed the toads off.”

She believes this is evidence of the “stress, wash and repeat” method the birds have developed to rid the toads of their poisons before swallowing them whole.

“It’s actually a lot of fun.”

“Smart” birds

This is not the first time birds have been spotted eating toads, Professor Rick Shine from Macquarie University told the BBC.

They seem to be less sensitive to venom than other animals such as snakes, mammals or crocodiles.

Toad expert Rick Shine says he’s never heard of such behavior

But they can still die from too much, and the taste is “terrible,” says Prof. Shine.

As the species spread across Australia, birds such as hawks and crows discovered quite quickly how to feed around the poisonous glands on the shoulder.

They turned the toads on their backs and ripped out their insides, leaving the acorns intact.

But this is the first time Professor Shine – who has studied toads for 20 years – has heard of birds using this method to eat them whole.

“Ibis have an unfair reputation… [but] it proves they are smart birds,” says Mrs Vincent.

“They actually got the toad to get rid of the poison on its own, they didn’t have to mutilate it in any way.” The toad does all the work for them.”

population control

Professor Shine and Ms Vincent say this is a promising sign that domestic animals are learning to adapt to the toads, which are now estimated to number over 2 billion.

Some species are beginning to realize that pests are a “very bad choice for lunch,” and there is evidence that others are undergoing genetic changes that make them less susceptible to poison.

And then there are animals like the ibis that have figured out how to safely eat toads, which could help bring the population back under control.

“They have an incredible reproductive capacity…so for every female toad that is removed from the environment, up to 70,000 new toads are prevented from forming each year,” Ms Vincent says.

In addition to poisoning predators, toads also eat small domestic animals

Most of the heavy lifting is done by animals that Australia hates – such as ibis, rodents or ants – says Prof. Shine.

“All these animals are actually doing a great job as an invisible army, reducing the number of toads every year,” says Professor Shine.

“So we really should be grateful to some of these unloved Australians.”

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