Hated cane toads march through Australia

By Uli Schmetzer, Chicago Tribune

From the Indianapolis Star, May 28, 1992

Brisbane, Australia - Yuk lives on the third floor of the Museum of Queensland. He has become a permanent warning against man's folly in tampering with nature and a reminder that his ravenous family advances another 17 miles across the country every year.

His ugly, plasticized remains not only evoke the inevitable "yuk" from visitors that gave him his name, they commemorate one of the most debated, disputed and bedeviled species in Australia today - the bufo marinus, or cane toad.

In just over half a century since he was imported from Hawaii to exterminate beetles, this plump, slimy and poisonous immigrant has occupied 40 percent of Queensland and has marched into the Northern Territory and New South Wales. Everywhere his prolific brood has elbowed out native wildlife.

He has taken over back yards. He uses highways and logging tracks as invasion routes. His emissaries have traveled in containers as far as Thailand. Birds and predatory animals - even snakes - die before they can swallow him, killed by a lethal dose of poison squirted from the glands on his back. Kookaburras fall dead out of trees, and pet dogs and cats become carcasses after tangling with Yuk.

"People hate the toad with a passion, mainly for poisoning their pets. But you can't help admiring the fellow," says Greg Czechura, the museum's toad expert. "These ugly little creatures are the greatest invasion machine: adaptable, fecund, mobile and hardy. Nothing can stop them."

Toad's importers erred

Like the rabbit, the cane toad was a manmade ecological blunder. The rabbit was imported last century to provide meat and fur. It ended up as Australia's worst living pest, munching its way across the country's grasslands and causing billions of dollars in damage to cattle- and sheep-grazing areas.

The first 102 toads came from Hawaii in 1934. They were hailed by their importers, a batch of Australian farmers, as the answer to the grayback beetle, which was decimating the sugar cane crop, Queensland's main export earner.

"Unfortunately the beetle lives on top of the cane, and it flies. The toad lives at the bottom of the cane and does not fly. The two never met," Czechura said.

Like the rabbits before them, the toads just loved Australia. The female produces as many as 30,000 tadpoles a year; astonished scientists describe the Australianized male as probably the world's most sex-crazed species. (Some rugged Australian types adopt it as a symbol.)

The lasciviousness of Yuks is legendary. The male claws himself with powerful forearms onto the back of the female and can't be dislodged. Toads have been photographed trying to mate with dead females flattened by trucks. Queensland goldfish farmers complain of randy toads leaping into ponds and catching fish in a fatal embrace.

Rising from the dead?

Czechura has been dealing with toads since 1978, when the museum started its Toad Advisory Service. He answers dozens of daily inquiries, including whether Yuks may have come from another planet or are endowed with immortality.

"People sit on verandas with air rifles and spotlights and pop off toads all night - bang, bang, bang," Czechura said. "But in the morning all the dead toads have disappeared. So they ring me up, hysterical."

This phenomenon is not restricted to veranda shooters. Rural communities and urban families who organize toad hunts usually exterminate the captured villains by placing them in plastic bags inside freezers. But the next day the corpses have vanished from the garbage heap.

Real toad haters often run their cars into ditches and telephone poles while zigzagging after Yuks on the road. When the toads are run over, their intestines pop out of their mouths.

"Toads have phenomenal recuperative powers," Czechura said. "The ones you shoot recover and hop away. The ones in the freezer have to stay there for three or four hours; otherwise they just warm up again. And the ones on the road are only stunned. After a few minutes they simply swallow their own digestive tracts and limp off into the bushes."

Perhaps the most successful toad hunters are those armed with 9-iron golf clubs. "They hate toads so much they usually chop them into pieces," Czechura said.

Not everyone in Australia hates toads. In a country known for defending the underdog, some argue that toads squirt poison only if distressed, make friendly pets and have not commercially damaged the environment.

Drug addicts have found a more sinister use for bufo marinus. They lick dried toad skin, which, among a cocktail of toxic substances, contains LSD.

"It's like Russian roulette," Czechura said. "The toxins that toads squirt can kill human beings as well as animals if a full dose is swallowed."

But so far, not one Australian has been fatally poisoned by a cane toad, which may explain why scientists and state and federal governments are still debating how best to control the pest.

"We're still looking for a way to control the toad," Czechura said. "We don't want to do anything that will cause even greater damage to the environment."