Beware introducing novel organisms! A tale of well laid plans and unintended consequences


Beware introducing novel organisms! A tale of well laid plans and unintended consequences

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Nigel Turvey is often spotted in forest habitats in Queensland and Sulawesi. When in Darwin he is an Adjunct Professorial Fellow in RIEL; he does postgraduate supervision and has been researching the history of the introduction of cane toads. His book Cane toads: a tale of sugar, politics and flawed science is to be published in November by Sydney University Press.


Cane toad (Bufo marinus)

Cane toads is as much a story about the inevitability of human fallibility – and its far-ranging repercussions – as it is an historical account about the arrival of the noxious species. Nigel delved into the human side of science with his previous book Terania Creek: Rainforest Wars:

“This book was about the unintended consequences of State-sanctioned management of forest resources in NSW,” he says. “Similarly, my unwritten hypothesis for cane toads is that the scientists who introduced them to Australia in 1935 were simply doing what they thought best – with unintended consequences. This is a far more scary scenario than just labeling them incompetent, because it could easily mirror what we might do today – simple acts that lead to catastrophic outcomes.”

Nigel’s forays into Australia’s cane toad problem took him down a research road filled with unexpected twists and bends.

“The research for this book has turned out to be a fantastic journey of discovery,” he enthuses. “It has turned up things I never imagined existed – the sorts of discoveries you can never plan for. And these have really given life to the story.”

From uncovering forgotten treasure troves of historical material to forging unlikely alliances with ancestors of those involved in the toad’s spread, Nigel’s research has spanned time and space in more ways than one: “Original documents – government letters and memos – about the introduction of the toad from Hawai‘i to Queensland in the early 1930s were discovered in a Brisbane basement,” he says. “The files were water damaged with rusted clips and staples, but a goldmine of events and attitudes about the sugar industry at the time.”

As for the ancestor: “After CDU published an interim paper I wrote on this research, a lawyer wrote to me from Hawai‘i asking that I justify my claims!” Nigel recounts. “He turned out to be Michael Lilly, the grandson of Cyril Pemberton, the entomologist who imported the toad from Puerto Rico to Hawai‘i, encouraged importation to Queensland, and helped distribute it around the Pacific.”

Nigel and Michael ended up striking up a friendship that had them sitting down together in the archives of Honolulu’s Bishop museum, reading letters that Cyril Pemberton had penned in far flung places like Puerto Rico, Papua New Guinea and Australia.

Nigel Turvey and Michael A Lilly with a descendant of the cane toads Michael's grandfather introduced to Hawaii in 1932

Nigel Turvey and Michael A Lilly with a descendant of the cane toads Michael's grandfather introduced to Hawaii in 1932

About the book’s take home message, Nigel retains a philosophical outlook: “Toads are here to stay, don’t look for blame – there is no recourse. Look instead for what we can learn."

“If you place the introduction of the cane toad into a modern context it would still look like something worth doing,” he states, proceeding to list the support that made releasing cane toads seem like a good idea at the time. “It built on previous successes in biological control, it replaced toxic and residual pesticides, it was supported by a published scientific paper, had international scientific peer review, and was endorsed by Australia’s peak science body. It was championed by industry, promoted by the Queensland Government and its Premier, approved for use by the Commonwealth Government and it had personal endorsement from the Prime Minister.

“On the face of it, in 1935 it was a winner.”

In Cane toads, Nigel takes a long look at the historical context of the decision to introduce cane toads to Australia both to make sense of the current conservation tragedy and realise the still-applicable elements that could allow a similar thing to happen today.

“The lesson today is that the scientists, cane growers and politicians were men of their times, just as we are of ours,” Nigel says. “Back in 1935 the decision-makers and facilitators were on a mission to help the sugar industry and protect the Queensland economy that depended on it. They were not evil-doers bent on populating Australia with a toxic pest. In 1935 the herd was spooked by the woes of the sugar industry and fraught economic prospects. The events show that today herd mentality could once again release a novel organism into an unsuspecting environment with ill-fated consequences."

“Today we have the best scientists on the job, but the best scientists were also at work in 1935. It is simply wrong to think that we are qualitatively different today. The lesson for scientists is to avoid the stampede, question the herd’s wide-eyed leaders, and get them to graze different pastures by asking questions, no matter how simple they seem.”



Cane toads; a tale of sugar, politics and flawed science
 will be launched in Sydney, Brisbane and Darwin in November. The dates and venues for your diary are:

  • Sydney: Monday 11th November, 6-7:30 pm Law School Foyer, The University of Sydney
  • Brisbane: Wednesday 13th November, 12:30 pm Queensland Museum Theatre, South Bank
  • Darwin: Friday 15th November, 5:15 pm Northern Territory Library, Parliament House