Professor Richard Shine loves snakes and lizards. He doesn't like that cane toads kill snakes and lizards. He started feeding cane toads to the native animals he loves so much, to condition them to avoid the poisonous amphibians. The unconventional meal plan has won him the $250,000 Prime Minister's Prize For Science, for defending Australia's native wildlife.
Cane toads are toxic. Very poisonous, they kill animals that eat them. Professor Shine, one of the world's most influential evolutionary ecologists, thought up ways to both lower the cane toad population and also protect the native animals from their poison. He came up with a behavioural conditioning method by encouraging quolls and lizards to eat some small cane toads, ones that were too small to poison or kill the native animal.
"A single nausea-inducing meal discourages any further interest in the toxic toad," the government said in a release announcing Shine's prize win.
"By exposing these predators to small, non-lethal toads ahead of the main invasion front of larger, lethal toads, [Shine] and his team have successfully buffered goannas against cane toads. They have also reintroduced cane toads into Kakadu National Park."
Shine's research also included ways to drop the cane toad population itself, stopping the toads from reproducing and placing traps laced with toad pheromones in spawning pools.
"Australia is a hard place to make a living. The soils are poor, the rains are infrequent and it is the cold-blooded animals that can wait out the bad times," Shine said.
"The creatures like snakes and lizards that dominate our ecosystem, they're the ones we have to focus on, they're the ones we need to understand if we want to keep Australia's ecosystem functioning."
Shine now matches his brother, John, who also won the 2010 Prime Minister's Prize for Science.
Elsewhere in the Prize for Science, six other researchers and innovators have been recognised:
- Professor Michael Aitken, the Prime Minister's Prize for Innovation, for a service that detects fraud in stock market systems;
- Dr Colin Hall, the Prize for New Innovators, for a new plastic material that can replace glass or metal;
- Professor Richard Payne, the Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, for engineering peptides from ticks and bacteria to create new drugs for stroke, tuberculosis and malaria;
- Associate Professor Kerrie Wilson, Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, for developing a system that can put a 'value' on goods such as clean air, water, food, tourism, forests, rivers and oceans;
- Suzy Urbaniak, the Prize for Excellence In Science Teaching In Secondary Schools, for a new teaching program to prepare students for careers in science and engineering;
- Gary Tilley, the Prize for Excellence In Science Teaching In Primary Schools, for mentoring and teaching science and maths teachers at Macquarie University
"As the calibre of these prize recipients demonstrates, this is an exciting time for science in Australia," said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
"The work that is happening in labs, universities and institutions now will position us to succeed in the years, decades and generations to come. Scientists' work improves our understanding of the world around us, helping to tackle issues that confront our country in medicine, conservation, trade industry and many other areas."
Australia's Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, also had high praise for the winners.
"Scientists are constantly thinking about the tremendous potential our future holds, and the best way for us to unlock it," he said.
"Science, and follow-on innovation, represent our path to that future; from cutting edge research, to the development and commercialization of new products, through to the dedicated teachers who inspire our next generation."
"The Prizes recognise outstanding individuals from all of these fields. But more than that – they recognise the importance of these groups working together with the community to reach Australia's best future."
For more information on the prizes, see the Prime Minister's Prize for Science website.