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Chronic effects of an invasive species on an animal community

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J. Sean Doody

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Invasive species can trigger trophic cascades in animal communities, but published cases involving their removal of top predators are extremely rare. An exception is the invasive cane toad (Rhinella marina) in Australia, which has caused severe population declines in monitor lizards, triggering trophic cascades that facilitated dramatic and sometimes unexpected increases in several prey of the predators, including smaller lizards, snakes, turtles, crocodiles, and birds. Persistence of isolated populations of these predators with a decades-long sympatry with toads suggests the possibility of recovery, but alternative explanations are possible. Confirming predator recovery requires longer-term study of populations with both baseline and immediate post-invasion densities. Previously, we quantified short-term impacts of invasive cane toads on animal communities over seven years at two sites in tropical Australia. Herein, we test the hypothesis that predators have begun to recover by repeating the study 12 yr after the initial toad invasion. The three predatory lizards that experienced 71-97% declines in the short-term study showed no sign of recovery, and indeed a worse fate: two of the three species were no longer detectable in 630 km of river surveys, suggesting local extirpation. Two mesopredators that had increased markedly in the short term due to these predator losses showed diverse responses in the medium term; a small lizard species increased by similar to 500%, while populations of a snake species showed little change. Our results indicate a system still in ecological turmoil, having not yet reached a "new equilibrium" more than a decade after the initial invasion; predator losses due to this toxic invasive species, and thus downstream effects, were not transient. Given that cane toads have proven too prolific to eradicate or control, we suggest that recovery of impacted predators must occur unassisted by evolutionary means: dispersal into extinction sites from surviving populations with alleles for toxin resistance or toad avoidance. Evolution and subsequent dispersal may be the only solution for a number of species or communities affected by invasive species for which control is either prohibitively expensive, or not possible.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.