Question: What toxic threat to Australia did the government encourage citizens to stuff inside their refrigerators?
Answer: Poison-packed cane toads
During the depression, when things were already tough Down Under, things got even worse: beetles began munching their way through the sugar cane fields of Queensland. The farmers needed salvation but didn’t want pesticides, so they turned to an angel from nature: beetle-eating South American toads that had staved off other crop blights in Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
Around 100 toads were plucked from amphibious work crews elsewhere and flown to Australia, where they were loosed upon the beetles. Sadly for the Aussies, they hadn’t considered a few things: the beetles ate the tops of sugar cane stalks, six feet away from what the toads could reach. The beetles and toads ate on opposing schedules, so when the toads were hungry, the beetles weren’t out. And the toads preferred more standing water than was available in sugar cane fields. The beetles lived, and the toads made themselves at home.
How at home were they? From Queensland, they spread out to cover 386,000 square miles. The original 102 frogs now have 1.5 billion descendants. One of the Top 100 invasive species of all time, they’ve become a bigger pest than the beetle; they mate constantly, so their numbers grow continuously, and their bodies contain toxic chemicals, which means that few predators dare eat them. Aussies detest them and want them gone, but more than 80 years of experience has them resigned most to the fact that toads rule.
Even so, experts keep trying to find a solution. Some have been comical, like whack-a-toad tourism, and others more serious, including a pesticide that worked but had to be abandoned when it caused cancer in humans. So far, despite $17 million spent on toad control, the only foolproof method is death by kitchen appliance. The official government recommendation is to put captured toads in your fridge for 24 hours, then in the freezer for 48 more (stilling the production of toxins and then freezing them into crystals inside the toad corpse).
So far, not enough Aussies feel up to stuffing their iceboxes with poisonous amphibians to make a dent. For now, cane toads continue to outnumber humans 50 to 1.
10 Things to Know About Cane Toads
- Don’t be fooled by the comically bulbous eyes: they’re not silly; they’re deadly. Behind each is a bump that secretes toxins strong enough to kill the unwise kangaroos and crocodiles that eat them.
- Their poison contains adrenaline and cardiotoxic properties, which speeds up a predator’s system to bring on a heart attack faster.
- They aren’t aggressive to humans at all and can only emit their toxins if punctured or shook incredibly vigorously, so human injury is rare (and usually the fault of the “victim”). No human deaths have ever been attributed to the species.
- They’re lovers, not fighters: they mate year-round and will attempt to mate with just about anything from rocks to roadkill.
- A fertile cane toad can produce 30,000 eggs in a night; most of the eggs will die, but as many as 500 new cane toads from that single birth may survive, exponentially increasing the population.
- The current toads are supersized compared to the originals. The biggest cane toad on record was the size of a Chihuahua.
- They are also longer. Their legs now measure up to 6% longer on average than the first population.
- Longer legs mean faster migrations; they have sped up their territorial increase from six miles per year in the 1940s to 30 per year now.
- The cane toad expands its body to hold water and its fat cells are energy-storing, which allows it to cross dry land without starving as it seeks new territory beyond its first pond.
- Travel, they like. Work, they do not. One reason they are taking over inhabited areas is that they prefer to catch insects by congregating around street lamps or under mosquito zappers and eating the bugs that literally fall into their laps.
Discover a world of wonders—and maybe a few cane toads—when you join us for Australia & New Zealand: An Adventure Down Under.