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Photo by Mark Lewis, Radio Pictures, Mullumbimby

By Professor Barney Glover

It is particularly fitting that the launch of Cane toads: a tale of sugar, politics and flawed science by Nigel Turvey coincides with this time in the seasonal calendar of the tropical north of Australia, when the wettest months will soon be upon us, which while bringing respite to many, are those months in which the cane toads are most active.

The richness of the scholarship of this engaging work comes from its traversal of the disciplinary divide, in much the same way the cane toad ignored the boundaries of the cane fields of Queensland in the 1930s. Nigel offers us a biography of Bufo marinus, how it has come to be among us and the problem of the seemingly unending march – or colonisation – of the cane toad across northern Australia. As he remarks, ‘they’re here to stay’.

In this socio-biography of the cane toad we are transported across time and place to this moment in the 21st century where we confront the reality of historical follies, not least the belief in the certainty of science. We are driven to surrender (to continue Nigel’s war metaphor) to the things we can control in these ‘cane toad wars’.

The journey takes us from the mudflats of Suriname, sugar plantations of the 18th-century Caribbean, waterfront taverns in Amsterdam, the rainforests of Brazil, ‘research’ stations of Puerto Rico and Hawai‘i at the turn of the 20th century, the hallowed halls of the Smithsonian, beyond to the cane fields of early 20th-century Queensland, then the suburbs of Darwin and frontiers of the east Kimberley in this century. On this journey, we are introduced to a rich cast of characters – worthy of Dickens – many ‘gentlemen of repute’ on whose wisdom we are burdened with a tragic legacy: 18th-century apothecary Albertus Seba whose collection compiled from his trade in all things exotic, including toads, would contribute to one of the most important developments in scientific inquiry (Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae), to outer space and the ‘Ig Nobel’ Professor Wassersug, to the champions of their use in biological control on this earth – the evangelised ‘cane-toad’ convert and liberator Mungomery – to the lone dissenting voice of the improbably named Walter Froggat, whose prescient concerns on the devastating effects of the toad’s introduction from the beginning are a sobering lesson. From 1936 in the words of Froggat:

(a)ll our ground fauna will become their prey, and all our curious, mostly harmless, and often useful ground insects, in forest and field, will vanish. There is no limit to their westward range and though originally native of tropical regions will probably adapt themselves to our mountain ranges and even reach the river banks and swamp lands of the interior. This great toad immune from enemies … may become as great a pest as the rabbit or prickly pear cactus. (p153)

Of course, the central character in this tragedy – apart from human folly – is that most iconic of animals: Bufo marinus – aka the American Toad, Fossil 41159, or as it is has commonly come to be accepted the cane toad, ‘that most sober and philosophical of animals’ or ‘mobile cow pattie’ or ‘toxic predator’ or ultimate weapon in ‘biological technological control’ depending on your perspective.

The size of a ‘small, roasting chicken’ they may be, but as Nigel reminds us their taste, far from an acquired one, has left the most ‘bitter of tastes’ on all who have consumed them. Since their ‘liberation’ into the Australian cane fields there have been other uses for the toad: for leather, traditional (Asian) medicine, and curiosities (the posing of toads, including in compromising positions). Here, he refers to the memorable dioramas of ‘artist’ Kevin Ladinsky which culminated in his ‘Travelling Toad Show’,

(t)here were a myriad of ways Australians have had to learn to love cane toads … By popping, dressing, playing, feeding, dissecting, injecting, collecting, skinning, stuffing, mounting and selling them. (p178)

Of course, this ignored more pedestrian and less benign developments happening ‘elsewhere’, not least the ‘toxic toad slick that could eventually cover two million hectares of the Australian continent’. As Nigel points out in documenting the pure folly and futility of efforts then and now to ‘contain’ the Toads with each female spawning 30,000 eggs (or ‘storm troopers’ at one time). Here, his use of war metaphors is most evocative in describing the sheer scale of the invasion and its devastation. While he provides an eloquent description of the breeding habits of this and other species, his description of the fertility of the female and her prolific breeding as akin to a ‘cluster bomb’ in its effect is a sober reminder that like all wars, this one is no less brutal. But unlike other wars there is ‘no count for the fallen in the cane toad wars’ (p174).

At every turn, Nigel’s book reminds us of the unintended consequences of interventions – in this instance biological agents in response to the problems of the day, aided and abetted by the unfettered, symbiotic relationship between ‘science’ and ‘industry’. The hyperbole of the contribution of Bufo that accompanied its distribution across the globe that Nigel documents so engagingly is only paralleled by the absence of a body of evidence which supported the claims made for its use. Unlike the victims they have left in their wake, it is the one body that remains to be found. Rather, the ‘reputation’ of Bufo as a saviour/predator of its time, was ‘gained through erroneous deduction’ (p13).

The parallels that Nigel draws between the innovation that led to the ‘liberation’ of the cane toad in Australia and across the tropical and subtropical regions of the world, and the potential risks of contemporary equivalents such as the introduction of genetically modified organisms, reminds us that the lone, dissenting voice – not necessarily the consensus view – is one not to be ignored, and one on which history may judge us harshly. It is an inevitability that our presence will lead to changes – both positive and negative – however, as a community of science, it is beholden on us to strive to avoid, as much as is within our purview to achieve, the ‘flawed science’ that led us to the current situation. We will of course, fail. It is after all, one of our weakest attributes as a species. But we continue on nevertheless with our responsibility to successive generations of not only those who may understand the risks involved in our decision-making, but also the disenfranchised who are unable to speak for themselves such as the native fauna of this continent and our planet.

As Nigel expressed it so well in a recent piece in The Conversation,

(s)ome would argue that consensus among scientists is an unnatural state for minds programmed to question sacred orthodoxies. But one thing is certain: we should be opening the doors of consensus to scientific scrutiny and critical debate, no matter what the issue, if we are to learn anything from the well-intentioned devastation wrought by the cane toad.

There is little to object to in this almost ‘definitive’ work on the cane toad, but in exploring a little further I was surprised to find that Nigel has failed to cite that erstwhile observer of human behaviour, Clive James, who in a column in 2009 reflected on new strategies to stem the tide of advance of Bufo. James lamented that attempts to genetically alter the toad to halt its advance are doomed to failure. He noted

(t)hose of us who remember … will be suspicious of plans to introduce a genetic switch in the cane toad that will turn them all into males and therefore extinguish the cane toad population. The performance of the cane toad so far suggests that even if they all turn into gay males and start collecting Judy Garland records they will go on taking territory.

James also noted, and to be fair so does Nigel, that cane toads are evolving quite rapidly – getting smarter with longer and stronger (and occasionally arthritic) legs. He suggests that

(t)here is a school of thought, not necessarily paranoid, which holds the opinion that cane toads with human skills have already penetrated the Australian media and are even appearing as presenters of reality television shows. That might be a fear too far, but surely it makes sense to start thinking of how the cane toads can be dealt with in another way (other) than warfare.

Perhaps for the reprint.

This is a marvellous book and I thoroughly recommend it for its many layers, its engaging style and wit, its uncompromising theme and ‘take no prisoners’ resolve … a rollicking good yarn, but obviously and unfortunately not the final word on Bufo marinus!

Professor Barney Glover is currently Vice-Chancellor of Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory. On 1 January 2014 he will formally commence at the University of Western Sydney as the new Vice-Chancellor and President. Professor Glover is a noted and internationally recognised mathematician with expertise in applied mathematics and mathematics education.

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