Communicating about invasive species- a good podcast!

I recently subscribed to the Ecological Society of America’s podcast “Beyond the Frontier,” which features engaging interviews (usually 10 to 15 minutes, perfect timing for the walk to work) with scientists who have recently published in one of ESA’s journals.  One of my favorite episodes is an interview with Dr. Richard Shine at the University of Sydney, about the cane toad invasion of Australia, one of the most well studied and documented biological invasions.  In the short but insightful interview, Dr. Shine discusses some practical and thoughtful options for controlling cane toads.  Using the toads as a case study, he also discusses public attitudes and actions towards invasive species, and the importance of engaging with community groups.

Cane toad image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

First Dr. Shine describes the extent of cane toad “hysteria” that has occurred in parts of Australia, due to impacts on native species (especially predators that try to eat them) and the development of general and strong public aversion to the toads.  The public is very aware of the invasion.  Many local groups actively try to eliminate the toads by collecting and euthanizing adult toads (“toad busting”).  Dr. Shine points out that even though the goal (fighting invasive species) is admirable, the methods are ineffective because a single female toad can lay tens of thousands of eggs; collecting single toads, even with hundreds of volunteers, cannot keep up with this rate of reproduction.

Importantly, the interview then turns to discussing the diversity of viewpoints that people have about invasive species- fear, affection, anthropomorphism, naturalistic interest, moralistic, an attitude of dominion.  Different public groups may have different feelings about invasive wildlife (or plants) and thus different approaches to dealing with the issue- some local groups may fight against the invasive species while other groups fight to protect them on grounds of humane treatment or because they prefer the introduced species (e.g. for economic or ornamental value).  This is the case for the coqui frog in Hawaii and the grey squirrel in Europe.  Such viewpoints contrast with those of the researcher, whose goal is to use logic and experimental results to understand ecological processes or impacts.  Shrine emphasizes that to effectively explain their research and how it supports certain control practices over others, the researcher must understand the viewpoint of the different public groups.

Dr. Shine emphasizes that scientists must talk (or blog!) to the public more, as public opinion then trickles up to local and regional public leaders.  Scientists must also understand the pressures on local leaders- economic, social and political.  For example, political leaders are expected to take some immediate action, such as collecting and killing toads, even though the science may say that such removal has no real effect.

Towards the middle of the interview, Dr. Shine then discusses his research into cane toad ecology and the many alternative methods of controlling the invasion- utilizing predators and parasites of the toads, exploiting toad pheromones to attract or stress them, supporting the competitive native toads, and fostering vegetation around the water bodies where they go to reproduce.  These solutions, often using the native species in the fight, can be integrated for a strong, multifaceted, science-based response.  However, such an applied research program is not so common among academics (or funding from science agencies), and thus there is a knowledge vacuum about effective control methods in various situations.  In addition, Shrine notes that control approaches must be explained to the public and political leaders, and actions must be undertaken in dialogue and cooperation with local groups, as also emphasized in a recent article in Conservation Biology.

The discussion concludes by emphasizing that the emotional response of the public is one of the main factors determining whether an invasive species control effort succeeds or fails.  But don’t take my word for it, go listen to the podcast or read the accompanying article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

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