You can see them from a helicopter: the white, bloated bellies of dead crocodiles, limply floating down the Victoria River. Australian freshwater crocodiles live hard lives, and most hatchlings are quickly eaten by fish, herons, frogs, turtles, or adult crocodiles. By the time they reach adulthood, at more than 7 feet long, they’ve already proven themselves to be the toughest reptiles around, so finding dead ones didn’t used to be common. Starting in 2002 that began to change (Letnic et al. 2002). Bodies started turning up, floating on their backs, by the hundreds. In their stomachs, researchers found the culprit: cane toads.
Cane toads, an invasive species in Australia, are extremely toxic. Their skin and organs are filled with cardiac glycosides, molecules that induce heart failure. Pets that eat them often die. So do a few humans, who lick the toads hoping to experience the hallucinogenic effects* of toad poison.
The toads’ natural predators, to varying degrees, have evolved to handle toad poison (also called bufotoxin). Examples include certain army ants and the cat-eyed snakes, which eat the toads and their tadpoles with ease. Even outside the toads’ native range (tropical Latin America), predators are often able to tolerate them because they have already adapted to the toxins of their own local toads.
Australia has a special problem: the country has no native toads. None at all. Since the cane toads’ introduction, scientists have observed dramatic population declines in predatory reptiles, from monitor lizards to pythons to crocodiles. These reptiles are not adapted to living with toads: they don’t instinctively leave toads alone, and when they venture eat one, death by poison is often the result.
Australia is home to two crocodile species. The smaller of the two is the freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni), which lives in ponds and the upper reaches of rivers, away from the northern coastline. At 7-10 feet in length, this species is not dangerous to humans unless provoked, instead subsisting on a diet of fish, amphibians, small mammals, and the like.
The larger is the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), males of which are the largest crocodiles on earth, reaching lengths up to 20 feet. Although they often live alongside (and sometimes prey upon) freshwater crocodiles, saltwater crocodiles truly thrive in the more coastal habitats: estuaries, mangrove swamps, and sea-bound river deltas.
Both species are opportunists, and will happily snap up a toad if given the opportunity.
Dr.’s James Smith and Ben Phillips (2006) wanted to find out just how dangerous cane toads were to Australia’s native predators. They harvested the toxins from cane toads and then administered them to various Australian reptiles, including predatory lizards, pythons, and both crocodile species.
When scientists want to know how deadly a toxin is, they calculate LD50. The LD50, or median lethal dose, is simply the amount of poison that will on average cause the death of 50% of victims.
The LD50 depends both on the toxin and on the animal that ingests it. A rat, for example, has a 50% chance of death if it drinks 192 milligrams of caffeine for every kilogram that the rat weighs. Rats typically weigh about 1/3 of a kilogram, so the total LD50 for caffeine is 1/3 of 192, or 64 mg. More toxic substances have lower LD50’s, since it takes less poison to cause death. Caffeine isn’t that toxic. Aren’t numbers fun?
Smith and Phillips calculated that the LD50 for bufotoxin fed to freshwater crocodiles was about 2.76 milligrams. Cane toads, which can weigh up to 2 kilograms, are perfectly capable of killing freshwater crocodiles that eat them.
Here’s the odd thing: while freshwater crocodiles often died as a result of cane toad poisoning, none of the saltwater crocodiles did. To see if the poison was affecting them in other ways, the scientists conducted athletic tests — if the crocodile couldn’t run as fast after poisoning, that was interpreted as a sign the poison was harming the reptile. While the freshwater crocodiles slowed down after ingesting bufotoxin, saltwater crocodiles were just as energetic before as after their toxic meal.
Are saltwater crocodiles immune to bufotoxin? It’s hard to say. The scientists wanted to kill as few crocodiles as possible, and they didn’t have enough crocodiles on hand to test much higher doses. Perhaps extremely high doses of bufotoxin would kill saltwater crocodiles, but the data is lacking.
What we do know is that saltwater crocodiles are much more resistant to cane toad poison than freshwater crocodiles. There are two potential reasons for this, and the most obvious is size. Saltwater crocodiles, males of which can weigh more than 2,000 pounds, are the largest crocodilians and the largest non-marine predators in the world. An adult saltwater crocodile simply cannot eat a toad large enough to reach a lethal dose.
Smaller crocodiles are more vulnerable. In 2013, an expedition to remote areas of northern Australia revealed that some populations of pygmy freshwater crocodiles, which only grow to 5 feet, have suffered declines upwards of 60% due to toad poisoning (Britton et al. 2013). The same research team, led by Dr. Adam Britton, is trying to raise money with a crowd-funding campaign to return to these remote sites, to study and help protect pygmy crocodiles. I strongly encourage you to visit the crowd-funding site here, as Britton has prepared a terrific video on pygmy crocodiles and the unique challenges they face.
The saltwater crocodiles in the Smith and Phillips study were not even close to 2,000 pounds — they were subadults, less than three feet long and closer to five pounds. So a few milligrams of cane toad poison should have killed at least some of them. Instead the walked away un-fazed, without so much as a skip in their gait.
Why? It may have to with the two crocodiles’ evolutionary history. In addition to being the largest, saltwater crocodiles are some of the widest-ranging** crocodiles, distributed from eastern India through Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and New Guinea. Because they can live in saltwater, they have been able to colonize many Pacific Islands (e.g., the Solomons) that are out of reach of other crocodilians.
Throughout their range they encounter a tremendous variety of potential prey. Saltwater crocodiles are not picky eaters, and have been observed feeding on fish (including sharks), frogs, lizards, snakes, turtles, crabs, snails, octopuses (during marine forays), deer, monkeys, pigs, cows, rats, otters, rabbits, porcupines, kangaroos, squirrels, wild cats, jackals, emus, geese, miscellaneous birds, and bats that fly just a little too close to the water.
Even though Australian crocodiles never encounter toads, they have almost exactly the same DNA as their relatives in Asia and Indonesia. Perhaps they have inherited a tolerance for bufotoxin, while the freshwater crocodile, alone and isolated in Australia, has not.
Freshwater crocodiles might seem like the evolutionary dopes in this story, but there is hope for them. While some populations have been hit hard, others appear to be unaffected, perhaps because cane toads tend to avoid the habitats where freshwater crocodiles do most of their hunting (Somaweera et al. 2012). Research (like the pygmy crocodile project) is continuing to shed light on where cane toads are affecting crocodiles the most, why, and what can be done to protect them.
Finally, crocodilians are more intelligent than most reptiles. Studies with captive specimens have shown that after just a few encounters, hatchling freshwater crocodiles are able to quickly learn to avoid cane toads. Back in the field, some populations of crocodiles are already showing signs of learning, as cane toads are attacked less often and less enthusiastically than native frogs (Somaweera et al. 2011). As with humans, the best hope for freshwater crocodiles is in the next generation.
*Don’t even think about it.
**Saltwater crocodiles, while secure in Australia, are endangered in Southeast Asia, where many populations have gone extinct.
Britton A.R.C., E.K. Britton, and C.R. McMahon. 2013. Impact of a toxic invasive species on freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni) populations in upstream escarpments. Wildlife Research 40: 312-317.
Letnic M., J.K. Webb, and R. Shine. 2008. Invasive cane toads (Bufo marinus) cause mass mortality of freshwater crocodiles (Crocodylus johnstoni) in tropical Australia. Biological Conservation 141: 1773-1782.
Smith J.G. and B.L. Phillips. 2006. Toxic tucker: the potential impact of cane toads on Australian reptiles. Pacific Conservation Biology 12(1): 40-49.
Somaweera R., J.K. Webb, G.P. Brown, and R. Shine. 2011. Hatchling Australian freshwater crocodiles rapidly learn to avoid toxic invasive cane toads. Behaviour 148(4): 501-517.
Somaweera R., R. Shine, J. Webb, T. Dempster, and M. Letnic. 2012. Why does vulnerability to toxic invasive cane toads vary among populations of Australian freshwater crocodiles? Animal Conservation 16(1): 86-96.