During a recent stormy night in Western Australia, one Paul Mock ventured outside and was greeted by thousands of cane toads. The animals had settled onto the rain-soaked grass after being flushed out of their burrows, which surrounded a dam on Mock’s property, according to the Guardian’s Helen Davidson. Amidst this sea of amphibians, Mock spotted an even stranger sight: 10 cane toads had jumped onto the back of a slithering python as though trying to hitch a ride out of the storm.
“[The snake] was in the middle of the lawn, making for higher ground,” Mock told Davidson. “He was literally moving across the grass at full speed with the frogs hanging on.”
Mock snapped a photo of the animal train and sent it to his brother Andrew, who posted the image on Twitter. It was shared more than 12,000 times, and Mock’s video of the python and its passengers was met with similar enthusiasm. The footage came to the attention of Jodi Rowley, a senior lecturer in biological sciences at the University of New South Wales. Rowley explained that while it may look as though the toads had found a clever way to coast to drier territory, this likely wasn’t what they had in mind. Rather, she said, the ill-advised toads were probably trying to mate with the snake.
68mm just fell in the last hour at Kununurra. Flushed all the cane toads out of my brothers dam. Some of them took the easy way out - hitching a ride on the back of a 3.5m python. pic.twitter.com/P6mPc2cVS5— Andrew Mock (@MrMeMock) December 30, 2018
Male cane toads, Rowley noted in a subsequent interview with the CBC, are lusty little things, always ready to leap onto the backs of much rarer female cane toads. When they manage to score a potential mate, males hang on for dear life as the females transport them to their desired mating spot. But in their quest to reproduce, cane toads sometimes get a bit overzealous. They have been known to try and mate with anything they can catch: male toads, human hands and feet, other species and even inanimate objects. On Twitter, Rowley shared an image of a can toad attempting to get it on with a rotting mango.
“And there was a bit of competition for that rotting mango,” Rowley told the CBC.
Because male cane toads have quite a strong grip, there wasn’t much the python could do except wait for his hijakers to disembark. Biting the toads certainly would not have been a good idea. The critters have glands on their shoulders that are packed with toxic poison, and if ingested, “this venom can cause rapid heartbeat, excessive salivation, convulsions and paralysis and can result in death for many native animals,” according to Australia’s Department of the Environment and Energy.
It’s a handy defense mechanism, but poison-secreting cane toads have environmentalists concerned. Cane toads are an invasive species in Australia; they are native to central and South America, and were brought to Australia in the 1930s as part of an attempt to control beetles that were gnawing away on sugar cane. The plan backfired, badly. A highly adaptable species, the cane toad spread far beyond the area where they were first released, now occupying more than 1.2 million square kilometers of Australia. According to the BBC, experts suspect there may be as many as 1.5 billion cane toads hopping across the country.
This is one of the most amazing videos I've seen!! Lots of *very* horny Cane #Toads (Rhinella marina) trying to mate with a large Olive #Python (Liasis olivaceus), with Giant Burrowing Frogs (Cyclorana australis) & Red Tree #Frogs (Litoria rubella) calling in the background! https://t.co/uy4yACCb8q— Jodi Rowley (@jodirowley) December 31, 2018
This abundance of cane toads has spelled trouble for native species. Cane toads are, for one thing, voracious eaters and will consume pretty much “anything that fits in their mouth,” says the Department of the Environment and Energy. Native species consequently face stiff competition for food. Cane toads have also been found to be a major source of mortality for one of Australia's beloved colorful birds, the rainbow bee-eater, whose ground nests are vulnerable to the hungry amphibians. But perhaps most concerning of all is the toads’ ability to slay predators with their venom. The animals are believed to pose a risk to reptiles, fish and birds, and experts think they have played a role in the decline of the northern quoll, a rare marsupial.
Australia has launched a number of efforts to reduce the cane toads’ harmful impact—some more palatable than others. In 2005, former member of parliament David Tollner encouraged Australians to kill the animals with golf clubs and cricket bats. But science may offer more effective weapons in the battle against the cane toads. Researchers have, for instance, scattered sausages stuffed with cane toad meat and a nausea-inducing chemical, in an attempt to condition predators to stay away from the amphibians. A breeding program is attempting to foster a distaste for cane toads among northern quolls, some of whom have inherited a toad-aversion trait.
A major breakthrough came in September, when scientists announced that they had sequenced more than 90 percent of the cane toad’s genome. This in turn may help experts discover new ways to bring the animals under control.
“Viruses such as myxomatosis have been successfully used to control rabbits,” researchers explained at the time. “But the cane toad viruses studied so far are also infectious to native frogs. The new genome could potentially help scientists hunt for viruses that attack only toads.”