Australia's northern quoll is a ridiculously cute marsupial that grows to roughly size of a cat. But despite being one of the country's most iconic predators, it's now on the brink of extinction in certain regions, all because it just won't stop eating highly toxic cane toads.
The problem stems from the fact that cane toads – an invasive pest species in Australia – look similar to the native frogs that are part of the quolls' normal diet. So the marsupials often eat cane toads by accident, and then die quickly as a result of the toxicity. But a researcher from the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) may have a solution – he's working on training 'toad-smart quolls' that he can then reintroduce into the wild.
"Our project will trial several innovative methods to see if we can prevent quolls from going extinct in the Kimberley, and whether we can facilitate the recovery of quoll populations in areas where they are currently locally extinct, such as Kakadu National Park," said wildlife ecologist Jonathan Webb.
In an ideal world, quolls would learn over hundreds and thousands of years of evolution that cane toad meat is bad for them, and they'd stop eating the species. But the fact that the toads are breeding so rapidly in Australia and are spreading so pervasively makes it highly likely that quolls will become extinct before that happens.
Which is where Webb is helping things along. The first step of his project is to retrain quolls into thinking cane toads are bad to eat, and then introducing these new toad-smart quolls into Kakadu National Park in Australia's Northern Territory.
He started this process back in 2009, when he created a 'cane toad sausage'. These sausages blend the meat of a non-lethal cane toad with a nausea-inducing chemical.
After the quolls eat these sausages, they begin to associate the smell and taste of cane toad with illness. The hope is that they'll avoid the toads in the wild when reintroduced to the national park, and potentially even teach other quolls the same behaviour.
The second phase of the project involves giving wild quolls in the Kimberley region of northern West Australia the nausea-inducing sausages, before cane toads even spread to the region. It's hoped that if they train enough quolls with the cane toad sausage, they may be able to prevent the marsupials from becoming extinct in the Kimberley in the first place.
"Australian Wildlife Conservancy will survey quoll populations before toads invade and will coordinate baiting prior to toad invasion," said Webb. "A PhD student will monitor quolls via radio-telemetry at control and baited sites, before and after toad invasion."
But if that doesn't work, Webb's team has a back-up plan – they're now looking for genes for toad avoidance in the quoll population.
"If [PhD student] Ella finds evidence for genes for toad avoidance, or rapid learning, then it might be feasible to cross QLD quolls with WA quolls, and reintroduce those quolls to areas where quolls are extinct…this is called assisted gene flow," said Webb.
We hope that this education works, because it would be devastating to lose such a beautiful native species forever.