A cane toad on a white background.

A cane toad.

CSIRO cane toad research

CSIRO scientists have explored the use of gene technology to reduce the number of Australian cane toads.

  • 8 December 2008 | Updated 14 October 2011


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Cane toads (Bufo marinus) were introduced to Australia to eat French's Cane Beetle and the Greyback Cane Beetle. The 'whitegrub' larvae of these beetles eat the roots of sugar cane and kill or stunt the plants.

The Australian Bureau of Sugar Experimental Stations imported about 100 toads from Hawaii to the Meringa Experimental Station near Cairns. The toads bred quickly and more than 3000 were released in the sugar cane plantations of north Queensland in July 19351.

Cane toads proved unsuccessful in controlling the beetles, and have since spread over much of northern Australia.

From 1991-97, CSIRO, with co-investment from the Australian Government, undertook major research on cane toads with a view to discovering biological methods for their control.

During the 1990s, infectious agents were sought from cane toads in their natural range in Venezuela. Although some agents were found, they proved to be infectious for Australian native species.

At the end of this work researchers concluded there were no readily available, naturally-occurring cane toad infectious agents that could be used directly to control toads in the way that myxoma virus and rabbit calicvirus have been successfully used to control rabbits2.

In the absence of such agents, CSIRO, in partnership with the Australian Government's Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (formerly the Department of Environment and Heritage), explored a long-term strategy for toad biocontrol, investigating genetic manipulation of a virus to target one of the life stages of the cane toad.

The project, funded by the Australian Federal Government, started in 2001 and concluded on 30 June 2008.

CSIRO scientists investigated a strategy of using gene technology and the cane toad's own immune system to help control the introduced pest. 

Unfortunately this approach was not successful and scientists were unable to reduce adult cane toad viability, and subsequently cane toad numbers.

1 Cameron E. 2002. Cane Toads, Giant Toads or Marine Toads. Australian Museum Online Factsheet.  [external link]

2 Hyatt AD, Parkes H, Zupanovic Z. 1998. Identification, characterisation and assessment of Venezuelan viruses for potential use as biological control agents against the cane toad (Bufo marinus) in Australia: a report from the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, CSIRO, Geelong, Australia. May 1998. Geelong, Victoria. Australian Animal Health Laboratory.

3 Taylor R, Edwards G. (eds). 2005. A review of the impact and control of cane toads in Australia with recommendations for future research and management approaches. A report to the Vertebrate Pests Committee from the National Cane Toad Task Force. July 2005.

4 Maniatis GM, Steiner LA, Ingram VM. 1969. Tadpole antibodies against frog hemoglobin and their effect on development. Science. 165: 67-69.

5 Halliday DC, Kennedy GC, Hamilton NH, Tarmo S, Alderman J, Siddon NA, Robinson AJ. 2008. Genes induced during the early developmental stages of the Cane Toad, Bufo (Chaunus) marinus. Gene Expression Patterns. 8(6): 424-32.

6 Pallister J, Goldie S, Coupar B, Shiell B, Michalski WP, Siddon N, Hyatt A. 2007. Bohle iridovirus as a vector for heterologous gene expression. J Virol Methods. 146(1-2): 419-23.

7 Bayliss P, Shannon MF. 2008. Review of the CSIRO Biological Control of Cane Toad Program to April 2008. Australian Government Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts[external link]