How indigenous expertise improves science: the curious case of shy lizards and deadly cane toads



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The Balanggarra Rangers are land management representatives of the Balanggarra people, the indigenous traditional owners of the East Kimberley. (L-R) Wes Alberts, Bob Smith (coordinator) James ‘Birdy’ Birch, Isiah Smith, Quentin Gore.
The Kimberley Land Council, Author provided

Georgia Ward-Fear, University of Sydney and Rick Shine, University of Sydney

It’s a common refrain – western ecologists should work closely with indigenous peoples, who have a unique knowledge of the ecosystems in their traditional lands.

But the rhetoric is strong on passion and weak on evidence.

Now, a project in the remote Kimberley area of northwestern Australia provides hard evidence that collaborating with Indigenous rangers can change the outcome of science from failure to success.




Read more:
We’ve cracked the cane toad genome, and that could help put the brakes on its invasion


Fighting a toxic invader

This research had a simple but ambitious aim: to develop new ways to save at-risk predators such as lizards and quolls from the devastating impacts of invasive cane toads.

Cane toads are invasive and highly toxic to Australia’s apex predators.
David Nelson

All across tropical Australia, the arrival of these gigantic alien toads has caused massive die-offs among meat-eating animals such as yellow-spotted monitors (large lizards in the varanid group) and quolls (meat-eating marsupials). Mistaking the new arrivals for edible frogs, animals that try to eat them are fatally poisoned by the toad’s powerful toxins.

Steep population declines in these predators ripple out through entire ecosystems.

But we can change that outcome. We expose predators to a small cane toad, big enough to make them ill but not to kill them. The predators learn fast, and ignore the larger (deadly) toads that arrive in their habitats a few weeks or months later. As a result, our trained predators survive, whereas their untrained siblings die.




Read more:
What is a waterless barrier and how could it slow cane toads?


Conservation ‘on Country’

But it’s not easy science. The site is remote and the climate is harsh.

We and our collaborators, the Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, decided at the outset that we needed to work closely with the Indigenous Traditional Owners of the east Kimberley – the Balanggarra people.

So as we cruised across the floodplain on quad bikes looking for goannas, each team consisted of a scientist (university-educated, and experienced in wildlife research) and a Balanggarra Indigenous ranger.

Although our study species is huge – a male yellow-spotted monitor can grow to more than 1.7 metres in length and weigh more than 6kg – the animals are well-camouflaged and difficult to find.

Over an 18-month study, we caught and radio-tracked more than 80 monitors, taught some of them not to eat toads, and then watched with trepidation as the cane toad invasion arrived.




Read more:
Yes, you heard right: more cane toads really can help us fight cane toads


Excitingly, the training worked. Half of our trained lizards were still alive by the end of the study, whereas all of the untrained lizards died soon after toads arrived.

That positive result has encouraged a consortium of scientists, government authorities, conservation groups, landowners and local businesses to implement aversion training on a massive scale (see www.canetoadcoalition.com), with support from the Australian Research Council.

A yellow-spotted monitor fitted with a radio transmitter in our study. This medium-sized male was trained and lived for the entirety of the study in high densities of cane toads.
Georgia Ward-Fear, University of Sydney



Read more:
Teaching reptiles to avoid cane toads earns top honour in PM’s science prizes


Cross-cultural collaboration key to success

But there’s a twist to the tale, a vindication of our decision to make the project truly collaborative.

When we looked in detail at our data, we realised that the monitor lizards found by Indigenous rangers were different to those found by western scientists. The rangers found shyer lizards, often further away from us when sighted, motionless, and in heavy cover where they were very difficult to see.

Gregory Johnson, Balanggarra elder and ranger.
Georgia Ward-Fear

We don’t know how much the extraordinary ability of the rangers to spot those well-concealed lizards was due to genetics or experience – but there’s no doubt they were superb at finding lizards that the scientists simply didn’t notice.

And reflecting the distinctive “personalities” of those ranger-located lizards, they were the ones that benefited the most from aversion training. Taking a cautious approach to life, a nasty illness after eating a small toad was enough to make them swear off toads thereafter.

In contrast, most of the lizards found by scientists were bold creatures. They learned quickly, but when a potential meal hopped across the floodplain a few months later, the goanna seized it before recalling its previous experience. And even holding a toad briefly in the mouth can be fatal.

Comparisons of conditions under which lizards were initially sighted in the field by scientists and Indigenous rangers (a) proximity to lizards in metres (b) density of ground-cover vegetation (>30cm high) surrounding the lizard (c) intensity of light directly on lizard (light or shade) (d) whether the lizard was stationary or moving (i.e. walking or running). Sighting was considered more difficult if lizards were further away, in more dense vegetation, in shade, and stationary.
Georgia Ward-Fear, University of Sydney

As a result of the intersection between indigenous abilities and lizard personalities, the overall success of our project increased as a result of our multicultural team.

If we had just used the conventional model – university researchers doing all of the work, indigenous people asked for permission but playing only a minor role – our project could have failed, and the major conservation initiative currently underway may have died an early death.

So our study, now published in Conservation Letters, provides an unusual insight – backed up by evidence.

Moving beyond lip service, and genuinely involving Indigenous Traditional Owners in conservation research, can make all the difference in the world.

Georgia Ward-Fear (holding a yellow-spotted monitor) with Balanggarra Rangers Herbert and Wesley Alberts.
David Pearson, WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions

This research was published in collaboration with James “Birdy” Birch and his team of Balanggarra rangers in the eastern Kimberley.The Conversation

Georgia Ward-Fear, Post doctoral fellow and Conservation Ecologist , University of Sydney and Rick Shine, Professor in Evolutionary Biology, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Like cats and dogs: dingoes can keep feral cats in check



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Feral cats are linked to the extinction of at least 20 Australian mammals.
Shutterstock

Mike Letnic, UNSW and Ben Feit

The role of dingoes in the Australian landscape is highly debated between ecologists, conservationists and graziers. They kill livestock, but also hunt introduced animals and keep kangaroo populations in check.

Now new research sheds more light on the benefits dingoes bring to the outback. For the first time, our research clearly shows that dingoes suppress feral cat numbers.

Our research, published recently in Ecosystems, used the world’s largest fence to compare essentially identical environments with and without dingoes. Over the course of the six-year study, dingoes drove down cat numbers – and kept them down.




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Feral cats are out of control

Feral cats are a serious conservation threat. They have been linked to the extinction of at least 20 mammal species in Australia and threaten the ongoing survival of more than 100 native species.

For our study, we asked whether “top-down” pressure from dingoes (through direct killing and competition for food) had a greater influence on controlling cat numbers than “bottom-up” effects (the availability of shared food sources preyed on by cats).

Dingoes drive down the population of introduced animals.
Kim/flickr, CC BY-SA

We conducted our study by comparing the numbers of dingoes, cats and their major prey species on either side of the dingo fence in the Strzelecki Desert. The fence runs along the borders of New South Wales and South Australia and was originally built to exclude dingoes from sheep grazing lands in NSW.

The state border follows the longitude line 141 east, so the fence does not demarcate any natural boundary. It simply cuts a straight line through sand dunes with similar landforms and vegetation on either side. Thus the dingo fence provides a unique opportunity to study apex predators’ effects on ecosystems: dingoes are common on the SA side, “outside” the fence, whereas on the NSW “inside” of the fence, dingoes are rare due to intensive persecution by humans.




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Let’s move the world’s longest fence to settle the dingo debate


We collected data from sites on either side of the fence in the Strzelecki Desert, at roughly four-month intervals between 2011 and 2017. Dingo and cat scat was collected at each site, to analyse and compare diets, and spotlight searches were used to record numbers of dingoes, feral cats, as well as two of their common shared food sources: rabbits and hopping mice.

Spotlight surveys revealed dingoes to be virtually absent from study areas inside the fence, with only four dingoes recorded during the study. Where dingoes were rare inside the fence, cat numbers closely followed fluctuations of their prey species consistently over the six-year span of our study. As prey numbers increased, cat numbers also increased, and similarly as prey numbers declined, cat numbers also declined.

A feral cat in outback Australia.
Shutterstock

Outside the fence, where dingoes were common, it was quite a different story. There, cat numbers were consistently lower, with numbers of both cats and dingoes following fluctuations in prey numbers across the first two years of the study. However, from 2013 onward, dingo numbers remained high and matched trends in their prey numbers for the remainder of the study.

During this time, cat numbers remained low, and by the end of 2015, cats had virtually disappeared from our study sites outside the fence and were not recorded during spotlight surveys between November 2015 and the end of our study in July 2017.

The most likely explanation for this drastic reduction in cat populations is through interference competition – either by dingoes killing some cats or by scaring others away from habitats in which they would usually hunt. Indeed, we occasionally found cat remains in dingo scats, which suggests dingoes prey on cats.

Although our scat analyses indicated that dingoes and cats eat similar foods, there was no evidence that competition for food was a major factor in how dingoes reduce cat populations. This is because prey were plentiful outside the fence, where dingoes were common and cats were rare.




Read more:
Why do some graziers want to retain, not kill, dingoes?


This research show how dingoes can help conservation efforts by suppressing feral cat populations. It adds to previous work showing dingoes are important in maintaining healthy ecosystems, as they reduce and eradicate feral herbivores like pigs and goats, and stop kangaroos from overpopulating districts.


This article was updated on April 5 to credit Ben Feit as a co-author.The Conversation

Mike Letnic, Professor, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW and Ben Feit, Post-doctoral researcher

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Invasive ants: federal budget takes aim but will it be a lethal shot?



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Argentine ants are a fact of life in many parts of Australia, but can still potentially be banished from Norfolk Island.
Davefoc/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Lori Lach, James Cook University

Amid all the usual items we expect to see in the federal budget was one that raised eyebrows: A$28.8 million for three ant eradication programs.

Yet amid the inevitable media puns about the government “upping the ant-e”, we should note that these funds are for the continuation of existing programs that have already attracted significant funding and made substantial progress. Stopping now would have meant previous funding was wasted.

The funds will go a long way towards protecting Australia’s economy and environment from the damage wrought by invasive ants. But despite the apparent cash splurge, it nevertheless falls short of what is really needed.

Of the $28.8 million, $18.3 million was for the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program. These funds are part of a $411 million, ten-year program begun in 2017 to eradicate red imported fire ants from southeast Queensland, the only place they are found in Australia.




Read more:
Cannibalism helps fire ants invade new territory


Removing these pests will avoid an estimated $1.65 billion in total costs to 19 different parts of the economy. With previous funding, the program eradicated these ants from 8,300 hectares near the Port of Brisbane, making it the world’s largest ant eradication to date.

The Yellow Crazy Ant Eradication Program was allocated $9.2 million over three years. Yellow crazy ants have caused a cascade of ecological effects on Christmas Island, and at their peak abundance temporarily blinded a Queensland cane farmer with their acid spray.

The Wet Tropics Management Authority, which runs the program, had requested $6 million per year for six years to continue removing the ant from in and around the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. The federal funding is $3 million short of this, and the authority is still waiting to hear whether the Queensland government will provide the remainder.

Since 2013, the program has received $9.5 million from the federal government (and $3 million from the Queensland government). No yellow crazy ants have been observed in about half of the target area in more than a year. A yet-to-be published analysis estimates the benefit-cost ratio for the program as 178:1.

“It’s a mop-up operation… we’ve got our foot on the throat of this thing.”

A further $1.3 million was allocated to the Argentine Ant Eradication Strategy on Norfolk Island in the South Pacific. Argentine ants have invaded places with Mediterranean-type climates all over the world, including southwestern Western Australia and parts of southern Australia, and become firmly established. But unlike those areas, the population on Norfolk Island is still considered small enough to be eradicable, and federally funded efforts to remove them began in 2010.

Yellow crazy ants in Queensland and Argentine ants on Norfolk Island directly threaten World Heritage Areas. The ants can have significant impacts on native birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians, and plants. Getting rid of them is important for meeting Australia’s international obligations to protect World Heritage sites.

What is ant eradication?

Ant eradication means removing all individuals of a particular ant species from a given area.

The first step is to define the extent of that area. Depending on the species, this may involve visual searches and/or placing lures such as sausages, cat food, or jam to attract the ants. The public can help by notifying relevant authorities of unusual ants in their gardens, and by not transporting materials that have ants on them.

The second step is treatment. Currently, the only way to eradicate ants is with insecticidal baits. Ants’ social structure makes this particularly challenging: killing the queens is vital for eradication, but queens typically stay sheltered in the nest – the only ants we see out foraging are workers.

Some of the most problematic ant species can have hundreds of queens and tens of thousands of workers per nest. They can reach extraordinarily high densities, partly because invasive ant species, unlike most of our native ant species, do not fight one another for territories.

Yellow crazy ants, proving it is possible to feel sorry for a cockroach.
Bradley Rentz/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Beating ants means turning their biology against them. Bait needs to be attractive enough for workers to bring back to the colony and share, but not so deadly that they die before they get there. (And yes, this means if you’re spraying foraging ants in your kitchen you won’t get rid them for good, because the queens are somewhere hidden, laying more eggs and making more ants.)

Most ant eradication programs take three to four years to fine-tune their baiting regime because of a multitude of factors that need to be considered, such as seasonal changes in ant foraging behaviour and food preference, and the desire to avoid harming non-target species. Typically, two to six treatments are required, depending on the ant species, the size of the area, and the habitat type.

Beating the 1%

The hardest part of ant eradication is the end-game. Getting rid of the final 1% requires first finding them. This may mean painstaking searches through hundreds of hectares of bushland and residential areas, and the placement of hundreds of thousands of lures. Detector dogs can be very helpful, but they cannot be used in all environments and also need substantial resources for training, handling, and maintenance.

Ironically, it is at this stage that public and political support for eradication programs is most likely to wane, because ant numbers are too low to be seen as a threat to the public, economy or environment. Yet it is vital not to stop now, or else the remaining 1% will simply build up their numbers again. Experienced staff are also lost when programs suffer cuts or delays in their funding.




Read more:
Eradicating fire ants is still possible, but we have to choose now


Disappointingly not mentioned in the budget was funding for eradicating electric ants. Like red imported fire ants, electric ants have a painful sting, and when left to multiply will eventually turn gardens and swimming pools into no-go zones. They also pose a significant threat to native animals such as the southern cassowary, and can blind animals as large as elephants.

They are currently only found in the Cairns region. The National Electric Ant Eradication Program, funded by federal and state governments, ran from 2006 until 2017 and had likely reduced numbers down to that last 1%. The program has been running on state funding with reduced staff since then, but several new detections in the past three months demonstrate the cost of the gap in funding.

In those inevitable “federal budget winners and losers” lists, invasive ants have found themselves firmly in the losers column for 2019. But it’s worth remembering that most of the world’s roughly 15,000 known ant species provide vital services for the functioning of our ecosystems.

They aerate soil and redistribute its nutrients, protect plants from herbivores, disperse seeds, and repurpose dead organisms. They may even help slow down the spread of those pesky invasive ants that are much less friendly.The Conversation

Lori Lach, Associate Professor, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What is a waterless barrier and how could it slow cane toads?



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A dam near Gemtree, Northern Territory.
Shutterstock

Mike Letnic, UNSW

A federal parliamentary inquiry into stopping cane toads’ relentless march across Australia has proposed creating “waterless barriers” in the semi-arid land between Western Australia’s Kimberley and Pilbara regions.

Because cane toads need regular access to water to survive, the plan is to fence off man-made watering points like dams and tanks, creating the equivalent of a firebreak the toads cannot cross.

My colleagues and I have been working with the federal inquiry to create this proposal. Here are the facts.

What is a waterless barrier?

There are large areas of Australia that are naturally dry. Except after big rains, there’s very little above-ground water. When people began farming sheep and cattle out in the western ranges, they created artificial water points with the help of dams, tanks and bores.

These water points are refuges for cane toads during droughts and act as stepping-stones when it rains, because the toads can move safely from point to point. This is how they are colonising large areas of Australia.

But if the toads can’t reach open water they cannot live through a dry season. The proposal aims to restrict the toads’ access to the water, but still let the cattle drink.

The poisonous cane toads are considered non-native pests in Australia.
Shutterstock

What kind of fences are we talking about?

Many water sources are actually already inaccessible to cane toads. Steel or plastic tanks filled from pipelines or underground dams cannot be reached. Troughs give a very limited supply.

The main problem comes from turkeynest dams (these are classic dams: pools of water in the ground with a mounded earth edge). My colleagues and I did research years ago that found a simple 60cm fence is enough to keep cane toads out.




Read more:
We’ve cracked the cane toad genome, and that could help put the brakes on its invasion


This doesn’t mean fencing dams is easy: the stations where this would be most helpful are very remote and have plenty of water sources, so fencing (and maintaining) them all presents a logistical hurdle. However many stations are increasingly replacing dams with tanks, which serve the same purpose (and lose far less water to leakage and evaporation).

Cane toads need moisture to survive.
Shutterstock

Another promising development is the number of farmers installing “cut-off switches” for the pumps that fill dams. This is a move away from the older system of turning on a pump and leaving it on until the generator ran out of fuel – perhaps days later. This meant considerable overflow, and created ideal conditions for cane toads. Tanks with solar panels and a cut-off switch that senses when a trough is full can save farms water, power and money, as well as stranding cane toads.




Read more:
Yes, you heard right: more cane toads really can help us fight cane toads


Would it affect native animals?

It’s true some of these dams are now part of the landscape – they’ve been there for a long time. On the other hand, we’re talking about areas that did not originally have much above-ground water before people showed up, and most animals native to the area don’t really need the water (of course, they will drink it if it’s there).

The other part of the equation is the presence of cane toads seriously threatens native wildlife. Cane toads are poisonous and kill native predators, with devastating effects to the environment.

Herd cows drinking water from a Northern Territory dam.
Shutterstock

How big does the barrier need to be, and won’t the rains let the toads cross anyway?

The cattle stations in northern Australia are huge – often 5,000ha. On this scale, just a handful of stations could make a huge difference.

Research suggests a barrier of 50km across could stop toads in their tracks.

The distance a toad can travel in a day varies highly with the environment and weather. In a hot, humid environment a toad might be able to travel roughly 20-30km during a wet season; during cold or dry weather they’re stuck where they are.

Therefore even after heavy rains there won’t be enough water in standing puddles or river beds to let the toads cross the waterless barrier. The puddles would dry out, leaving the toads stranded and without access to dams they would quickly die.




Read more:
The economics of ‘cash for cane toads’ – a textbook example of perverse incentives


Why should we do it?

Cane toads haven’t been found in this part of Australia, but we believe they will be soon. By creating waterless barriers we can cut them off.

Excitingly, this strategy also has potential to be used in other parts of the country to push cane toads back, reclaiming invaded areas.

Most of the pests Australia has really gone to war against affect agriculture. Cane toads, on the other hand, are an environmental pest: they wreak havoc on native fauna, but have comparatively little impact on cash crops.

Eradication of environmental pests receives comparatively little resources. This proposal would be both a win against a devastating invader, and also a symbol of how much we care for our natural environment, and how important it is to protect it.The Conversation

Mike Letnic, Professor, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Stowaway mozzies enter Australia from Asian holiday spots – and they’re resistant to insecticides



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We might not be able to use common insecticides to kill mosquitoes that arrive from other countries.
from www.shutterstock.com

Tom Schmidt, University of Melbourne; Andrew Weeks, University of Melbourne, and Ary Hoffmann, University of Melbourne

Planning a trip to the tropics? You might end up bringing home more than just a tan and a towel.

Our latest research looked at mosquitoes that travel as secret stowaways on flights returning to Australia and New Zealand from popular holiday destinations.

We found mosquito stowaways mostly enter Australia from Southeast Asia, and enter New Zealand from the Pacific Islands. Worse still, most of these stowaways are resistant to a wide range of insecticides, and could spread disease and be difficult to control in their new homes.




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Secret stowaways

Undetected insects and other small creatures are transported by accident when people travel, and can cause enormous damage when they invade new locations.

Of all stowaway species, few have been as destructive as mosquitoes. Over the past 500 years, mosquitoes such as the yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti) and Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) have spread throughout the world’s tropical and subtropical regions.

Dengue spread by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes now affects tens to hundreds of millions of people every year.




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Mosquitoes first travelled onboard wooden sailing ships, and now move atop container ships and within aircraft.

Adults in your luggage

You probably won’t see Aedes mosquitoes buzzing about the cabin on your next inbound flight from the tropics. They are usually transported with cargo, either as adults or occasionally as eggs (that can hatch once in contact with water).

It only takes a few Aedes stowaways to start a new invasion. In Australia, they’ve been caught at international airports and seaports, and in recent years there has been a large increase in detections.

Aedes aegypti mosquito detections per year at Australian international terminals – passenger airline terminals in white; seaports or freight terminals in black.
Tom Schmidt, Author provided



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In our new paper, we set out to determine where stowaway Aedes aegypti collected in Australia and New Zealand were coming from. This hasn’t previously been possible.

Usually, mosquitoes are only collected after they have “disembarked” from their boat or plane. Government authorities monitor these stowaways by setting traps around airports or seaports that can capture adult mosquitoes. Using this method alone, they’re not able to tell which plane they came on.

But our approach added another layer: we looked at the DNA of collected mosquitoes. We knew from our previous work that the DNA from any two mosquitoes from the same location (such as Vietnam, for example) would be more similar than the DNA from two mosquitoes from different locations (such as Vietnam and Brazil).

So we built a DNA reference databank of Aedes aegypti collected from around the world, and compared the DNA of the Aedes aegypti stowaways to this reference databank. We could then work out whether a stowaway mosquito came from a particular location.

We identified the country of origin of most of the Aedes aegypti stowaways. The majority of these mosquitoes detected in Australia are likely to have come from flights originating in Bali.

Here’s where the Aedes aegypti mozzies come into Australia and New Zealand from.
Tom Schmidt, Author provided

Now we can work with these countries to build smarter systems for stopping the movement of stowaways.

As the project continues, we will keep adding new collections of Aedes aegypti to our reference databank. This will make it easier to identify the origin of future stowaways.

New mosquitoes are a problem

As Aedes aegypti has existed in Australia since the 19th century, the value of this research may seem hard to grasp. Why worry about invasions by a species that’s already here? There are two key reasons.

Currently, Aedes aegypti is only found in northern Australia. It is not found in any of Australia’s capital cities where the majority of Australians live. If Aedes aegypti established a population in a capital city, such as Brisbane, there would be more chance of the dengue virus being spread in Australia.

The other key reason is because of insecticide resistance. In places where people use lots of insecticide to control Aedes aegypti, the mosquitoes develop resistance to these chemicals. This resistance generally comes from one or more DNA mutations, which are passed from parents to their offspring.




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Importantly, none of these mutations are currently found in Australian Aedes aegpyti. The danger is that mosquitoes from overseas could introduce these resistance mutations into Australian Aedes aegpyti populations. This would make it harder to control them with insecticides if there is a dengue outbreak in the future.

In our study, we found that every Aedes aegpyti stowaway that had come from overseas had at least one insecticide resistance mutation. Most mosquitoes had multiple mutations, which should make them resistant to multiple types of insecticides. Ironically, these include the same types of insecticides used on planes to stop the movement of stowaways.

Other species to watch

We can now start tracking other stowaway species using the same methods. The Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) hasn’t been found on mainland Australia, but has invaded the Torres Strait Islands and may reach the Cape York Peninsula soon.

Worse still, it is even better than Aedes aegypti at stowing away, as Aedes albopictus eggs can handle a wider range of temperatures.

A future invasion of Aedes albopictus could take place through an airport or seaport in any major Australian city. Although it is not as effective as Aedes aegypti at spreading dengue, this mosquito is aggressive and has a painful bite. This has given it the nickname “the barbecue stopper”.

Beyond mosquitoes, our DNA-based approach can also be applied to other pests. This should be particularly important for protecting Australia’s A$45 billion dollar agricultural export market as international movement of people and goods continues to increase.




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The Conversation


Tom Schmidt, Research fellow, University of Melbourne; Andrew Weeks, Senior Research Fellow, University of Melbourne, and Ary Hoffmann, Professor, School of BioSciences and Bio21 Institute, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cannibalism helps fire ants invade new territory



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Fire ant stings can be deadly to people who have an allergic reaction to their venom.
Forest and Kim Starr/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Pauline Lenancker, James Cook University and Lori Lach, James Cook University

Tropical fire ants (Solenopsis geminata), originally from central and South America, are a highly aggressive, invasive ecological pest. Our new research has shed light on how they successfully establish new colonies.

An allergic reaction to painful tropical fire ant bites.
Pauline Lenancker, Author provided

While we don’t know exactly how widespread tropical fire ants are in Australia, they are well established around Darwin and Katherine, as well as on Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef. Disturbing one of their nests will result in many workers inflicting painful stings on the intruder, and can trigger an allergic reaction in some people.

When invasive ants move to a new region, the pioneers may be one or a few colonies. Because these pioneers are isolated, they often inbreed, which causes genetic problems in their offspring. But our new research, published in Scientific Reports, reveals how tropical fire ants use cannibalism to survive and spread, despite their low genetic diversity.




Read more:
Eradicating fire ants is still possible, but we have to choose now


Sons and daughters

Founding new colonies is how fire ants spread. Queens fly off to start their own colonies just after they have mated. It is a perilous journey – they need to avoid predators and find a good spot to start laying eggs. If queens do not quickly rear daughters that can forage, called workers, they will starve to death.

Queens can lay two different types of eggs: fertilised eggs, which will develop into workers, and unfertilised eggs, which will develop into males. Therefore, female workers have two copies of each gene (diploid), while males have a single copy of each gene (haploid). However, when an ant queen and her mate are closely related, a flaw in the sex determination system of ants causes half of the fertilised eggs to develop into diploid males instead of workers.

The role of males is only to mate with queens – they do not forage, and they die after they have mated. Queens founding a colony have no interest in producing males, because males will not feed them. What’s more, diploid males are often sterile, and their larvae are larger than worker larvae. Therefore, queens can waste precious resources feeding fat useless sons instead of workers.

We wanted to find out how common diploid males are in field colonies, and how queens could successfully start colonies despite them. Understanding how tropical fire ants spread, we hope, can help us stop them expanding their range.

Abandoned and eaten

Our field sampling of tropical fire ant colonies around Darwin revealed eight out of ten colonies produced diploid males.

We collected 1,187 queens that had just mated, and assigned them to start colonies on their own or with other queens.

We observed that in 34% of colonies producing diploid males, diploid male larvae were placed in the colony trash pile by the queens instead of being kept with the worker larvae. It is usual for ants to keep dead individuals away from the rest of the colony, but when we looked at some of these abandoned larvae under a microscope, we realised they were still alive.




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Curious Kids: do ants have blood?


Queens not only abandoned their sterile sons, they ate them. Three-quarters of the 109 sterile male larvae disappeared from the colonies within 12 days of when we first observed them. Because the queens were the only adult ants present in the colony, this means the queens were eating their diploid males or feeding them to their worker larvae.

This cannibalistic behaviour allowed the queens to redirect nutrients towards themselves or productive members of their colony. Diploid male larvae require more food than worker larvae to develop, so we expected queens from diploid male producing colonies to lose more weight than queens from colonies that only produced workers, but we found that was not the case. Queens with diploid males lost less weight or as much weight as queens from regular colonies, probably because they ate their sterile sons.

We also found queens who worked together in groups to start a colony reared more workers. Therefore, queens in groups would likely have a better chance of survival even if they produced sterile males. But in 6% of colonies, queens did not tolerate having housemates and dismembered other queens.

A queen dismembered by a tetchy rival.
Pauline Lenancker, Author provided

For tropical fire ants, cannibalising sterile sons and cooperative brood rearing among queens are two behavioural mechanisms for avoiding inbreeding costs. A third possible mechanism for the queens is to “sleep around”.

Promiscuity would increase the chance of mating with a genetically different male, and reduce the likelihood of producing diploid sons.

Queens only mate right before starting their colony and store the sperm in an organ called the spermatheca. We genetically analysed sperm from the spermatheca of 40 queens, but found no evidence queens had mated with more than one male.

Tropical fire ants are currently established on Ashmore Reef, a protected Australian Marine Park which is an important breeding site for seabirds and turtles. The invasive ant threatens this sanctuary by attacking seabird and turtle hatchlings. Accidental spreading of tropical fire ants to suitable habitats in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia would threaten invaluable ecosystems as well as our health and lifestyles.




Read more:
How we wiped out the invasive African big-headed ant from Lord Howe Island


The current eradication program for the closely related red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) in Queensland has been granted A$411 million over ten years, and failure to eradicate red imported fire ants could cost Australia A$1.65 billion per year in damaged crops, livestock harmed and people treated. The more we learn about invasive ant biology, the closer we are to new methods of preventing their spread.The Conversation

Pauline Lenancker, PhD student in biology and ecology, James Cook University and Lori Lach, Associate Professor, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

NSW election: where do the parties stand on brumby culling?



File 20190321 93063 1k3xosw.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Feral horses have severely damaged the landscape in Kosciuszko National Park.
Travelstine, CC BY-SA

Don Driscoll, Deakin University

The future management of New South Wales’s national parks is one of the issues on the line in Saturday’s state election. Other states will be watching the outcome closely.

Depending on who wins, the outcome for Kosciuszko National Park spans from restoration and recovery to ongoing environmental decay, with feral horses given priority over native species.




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Low-key NSW election likely to reveal a city-country divide


All political parties have been well informed about the science behind feral horses in the Australian Alps. The peer-reviewed literature shows that:

  • feral horse impacts put multiple species at greater risk of extinction

  • streams and bogs are degraded, threatening water quality, and will require restoration

  • even small numbers of horses lead to cumulative environmental degradation

  • a range of high and low elevation areas are severely degraded by feral horses; it is not clear whether any areas can withstand horse impacts

  • rehoming and fertility control are not effective control methods when horses number in the thousands and are hard to reach

  • aerial culling is humane, effective, and cheaper than other methods.

But despite the clarity of recommendations emerging from research, political parties have taken a broad range of approaches.

A feral horse exclusion fence. But which side of the fence are the major parties on?
Author provided

Liberal/National Coalition

The Liberal/National coalition has pledged to enact its Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill, which was passed by the state parliament last year and aims to “recognise the heritage value of sustainable wild horse populations within parts of Kosciuszko National Park”.

This legislation would ensure several thousand feral horses remain in the park, potentially compromising the conservation goals of the park’s management plan.




Read more:
Passing the brumby bill is a backward step for environmental protection in Australia


This month, Deputy Premier John Barilaro said the government would “immediately” reduce horse numbers by 50%, through trapping, rehoming, fertility control, and relocating horses to “less sensitive” areas. Although he appeared to endorse an ultimate population target of 600 feral horses in front of an audience that was receptive to that idea, under pressure from the pro-brumby lobby, he later clarified that the coalition would aim to keep 3,000-4,000 feral horses in Kosciuszko.

Labor

Labor, along with the Greens and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, has pledged to repeal the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill if it wins the election, and has committed A$24 million to restore the national park.

Its six-point national parks restoration plan bans aerial culling, instead proposing to control horses using rehoming, while expanding research on fertility control.

Labor’s plan also mentions active management of feral horses in sensitive ecosystems, and ensuring large horse populations do not starve to death. It plans to achieve these two goals by trapping and rehoming brumbies. Labor also plans to keep a “smaller population” of feral horses in areas within the national park “where degradation is less critical”.

Greens

The NSW Greens has arguably the most evidence-based policy, aiming to reduce horse numbers by 90% in three years, with a longer-term goal of full eradication.

This means national parks would be managed for native Australian species. That is important in NSW, where only 10% of the state has been allocated to protected areas, well below international standards of 17%. They would achieve this reduction using all humane methods currently available, including trapping, rehoming, mustering, and ground-based and aerial shooting.

The Greens would also fund rehabilitation of damaged habitat, and has flagged substantial funding for conservation initiatives.

Shooters, Fishers and Farmers

The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party supports immediate action to reduce feral horse numbers using humane methods, including ground shooting, but not aerial culling.

The party, which holds one lower house seat and has two upper house members, has announced no plans for restoration of the national park.

Animal Justice Party

The Animal Justice Party, which has just one upper house member in the parliament, has endorsed “non-lethal control measures” in areas that are clearly being degraded by feral horses. It says this should be achieved entirely using fertility control and relocation. The party has also described brumby culling proposals as “horrific” and called for urgent national legislation to protect them.




Read more:
Why do brumbies evoke such passion? It’s all down to the high country’s cultural myth-makers


There is pressure from pro-brumby lobbyists to keep feral horse populations in Guy Fawkes, Barrington Tops, Oxley Wild Rivers, the Blue Mountains, and other NSW national parks. In Victoria, a pro-brumby pressure group will take Parks Victoria to the Federal court later this year to prevent removal of a small but damaging horse population on the Bogong High Plains in the Alpine National Park.

When NSW voters decide the fate of Kosciuszko National Park on Saturday, their verdict could have broader ramifications for protected areas throughout Australia.The Conversation

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.