Behavioural innovation and social learning as strategies to mitigate the impacts of invasive species.

By 11/22/2023Current Projects
HSF 22087 | Amount: $84,000 | Project Leader: S Clulow | Project Period:

A project undertaken at The University of Canberra, and supervised by Dr Simon Clulow.

Invasive species can cause severe population declines in native species that are naïve to the invader’s impacts. In northern Australia, invasive cane toads have decimated populations of native predators, such as goannas and quolls, through lethal poisoning because toads have highly toxic body parts that Australian species have not previously encountered. However, some native predators appear able to adapt rapidly to this situation by adopting new feeding behaviours that enable them to safely consume the non-toxic parts of toads, turning a potentially lethal prey into an abundant food resource.

For example, there are commonly anecdotal reports of Torresian crows flipping cane toad upside down and pulling out the harmless organs and body parts while avoiding the toxic glands located at the back of the neck. This raises the possibility that novel conservation strategies could be developed aimed at accelerating the introduction of behavioural innovations that could spread via social learning to mitigate the negative impacts of invasive species.

We will use the advancing cane toad invasion front across northern Australia to test the hypothesis that the emergence of behavioural innovations, such as crows learning to flip and safely eat toads, and the spread of such behaviours through social learning (i.e. crow to crow) has enabled Torresian crows to recover rapidly from population crashes induced by the initial arrival of toads in an area. We will quantify the pattern of crow population decline and recovery as toads move through new areas, use captive learning trials with wild caught toad-naïve (captured ahead of the invasion front) and toad-exposed (captured behind the invasion front) crows to investigate how new behavioural innovations emerge, and use captive experiments to assess the role of crows teaching each other the new behaviours to accelerate the spread of these behavioural innovations.

 By investigating the arrival and impact of cane toads on crow populations in real-time, our study will be one of the first to uncover the mechanisms by which adaptive behavioural innovations can emerge and spread, and the potential for social learning to be used as a conservation strategy.