Sex-based differences in the use of post-fire habitats by invasive cane toads (Rhinella marina)

Study species

Cane toads (Rhinella marina) are large (to > 1 kg) bufonids (Fig. 1a). Although native to north-eastern South America, these toads have been translocated to many countries worldwide to control insect pests12. Adult cane toads forage at night for insect prey and retreat to moist shelter-sites per day13. Small body size (and thus, high desiccation rate) restricts young toads to the margins of natal ponds14, but adult toads can survive even in highly arid habitats if they have access to water13,15. Cane toads prefer open habitats for foraging12, and thus can thrive in post-fire landscapes16,17. Cane toads in post-fire landscapes tend to have lower parasite burdens, probably because free-living larvae of their lungworm parasites cannot survive either the fire or the more sun-exposed post-fire landscape18.

Figure 1

taken from study sites between Casino, Grafton, and surrounds, NSW, by S.W. Kaiser.

The cane toad Rhinella marina (a), and unburned, (b) and burned (c) habitats in which toads were collected and radio-tracked. Photographs were

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Study area

East of the Great Dividing Range, near-coastal Clarence Dry Sclerophyll Forests of north-eastern New South Wales (NSW) are dominated by Spotted gum (Corymbia variegata) and Pink bloodwood (Corymbia intermedia)19. Fires are common, but typically cover relatively small areas before they are extinguished. In the summer of 2019–2020, however, prolonged drought followed by an unusually hot summer resulted in massive fires across this region, burning almost 100,000 km2 of vegetation9. In the current study, the toads we measured and dissected came from several sites within 75 km of the city of Casino (for site locations, see Fig. 2, Table 1, and18). The impacts of fire on faunal abundance and attributes shift with time since fire; for example, the abundance of a particular species may be reduced by fire (due to mortality from flames) but then increase as individuals from surrounding areas migrate to the recently-burned site to exploit new ecological opportunities provided by that landscape8. We chose to study this system 1-year post-fire, to allow time for such longer-term effects to be manifested.

Figure 2

Sampling sites relative to fire history. Sample sites are burned (red circles), and unburned (green squares). See Table 1 for key to sites. The legend shows the extent of burn a year prior to our study. Map created in QGIS 3.22.3. Fire history available from CC BY 4.0.

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Table 1 Sampling sites and sample sizes for dissected and radio-tracked cane toads (Rhinella marina) in New South Wales, Australia.
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Surveys of toad abundance

To quantify toad abundance in burned and unburned sites, one observer (MJG) walked 100-m transects along roads at night (N = 23 and 8 respectively), recording all toads and native frogs (both adult and juvenile). The smaller number of unburned sites reflects the massive spatial scale of the wildfires, which made it difficult to find unburned areas. The transect sites were not the same as those sampled by “toad-busters” (below). We sampled both burned and unburned sites on each night, to de-confound effects of weather conditions with fire treatment. We scored frogs as well as toads to provide an estimate of overall anuran abundance and activity, and so that we could examine toad abundance relative to frog abundance as well as absolute toad numbers.

“Toad-buster” sample

Because of their ecological impact on native fauna, cane toads are culled by community groups as well as by government authorities12,20. We asked “toad-buster” groups to record whether the sites at which they collected toads had been burned during the 2019–2020 fires, or had remained unburned (Table 1). The toads were humanely euthanized (cooled-then-pithed: see21). The euthanasia method is brief (a few hours in the refrigerator, followed by pithing) and thus should not have affected any of the traits that we measured. For all of these toads, we measured body length (snout-urostyle length = SUL) and mass, and determined sex based on external morphology (skin colour and rugosity, nuptial pads: see22). A subset of toads (chosen to provide relatively equal numbers of males and females, and with equal numbers from burned and unburned sites) was dissected to provide data on mass of internal organs (fat bodies, liver, ovaries), reproductive condition (state of ovarian follicle development) and diet (mass and identity of prey items). To select the subsample of toads for dissection, we took relatively equal numbers of male and female toads from each bag of toads that was provided to us by the “toad-busters”. For logistical reasons, we were unable to dissect all of the toads that had been collected. Overall, we obtained data on morphology, diets and other traits from 481 fully dissected and 1443 partially dissected cane toads.


To explore habitat use and movement patterns, we radio-tracked 57 toads over the course of two fieldtrips (0900–1800 h from 20 Nov 2021 to 6 Dec 2021 and 25 Jan 2022 to 10 Feb 2022). We selected seven sites (4 burned, 3 unburned) within 28 km of Tabbimoble, NSW (see Table 1 for locations and sample sizes of tracked toads). We hand-captured toads found active at night. These were measured, and their sex determined by external morphology (see above) and behaviour (release calls, given only by males: see23). We then fitted the toads with radio-transmitters (PD-2; Holohil Systems, Ontario, Canada; weighing ≤ 3.8 g) on cotton waist-belts, and released them at the site of capture. Tracked toads were 88.2–160.9 mm SUL (mass 70.1–546.3 g); thus, transmitters weighed < 10% of body mass (as recommended by24). Toads were located daily for the next 5 days using a handheld Yagi directional antenna and a scanning receiver (Australis 26 k; Titley Scientific, Queensland, Australia), and coordinates were recorded using a handheld GPS (Garmin eTrex 10; using UTM). We calculated path straightness as in24. We recorded displacement as the distance from the initial refuge; all distances were measured directly in the field rather than estimated from subsequent GIS analyses, except that distance between coordinates was determined in Excel by calculating the hypotenuse between easting and northing measurements over successive days.

We recorded attributes of tracked toad habitat and shelter-sites by visually estimating the percentage cover of environmental variables in a 1-m2 quadrat. We estimated vegetation density (understory and canopy) as the percentage of shading over the quadrat at midday. We also estimated mean height of vegetation (understory, canopy, and grass) and the distances from a toad’s diurnal refuge to the nearest road and waterbody. Additionally, we counted the number of vertical stems (5–20 mm thick) and trunks (> 20 mm thick) within the quadrat, and estimated exposure of the toad within its refuge (the percentage of the animal’s body exposed to the naked eye). We then selected a compass bearing at random and walked 20 m in that direction where we rescored all of the above habitat attributes, to quantify habitat features in the broader environment (i.e., not just in microhabitats used by toads). We used those “random” sites to quantify overall habitat attributes of burned and unburned sites. Temperature was recorded by directing a temperature gun (Digitech QM7221) on (or otherwise close-to) toads and at a random point on the ground for random replicates. In total, we gathered radio-tracking data on movements and habitat variables from 57 cane toads, each of which was tracked for 5 days. Recaptured toads were euthanized by cooling-then-pithing.

Morphological traits

To obtain an index of body condition of toads, we regressed ln mass against ln SUL, and used the residual scores from that general linear regression as our estimate of body condition. Negative residual scores show an individual that weighs less-than-expected based on its body length. Likewise, we regressed mass of the fat bodies, liver and stomach against body mass to obtain indices of energy stores and stomach-content volumes relative to body mass. We scored male secondary sexual characteristics using the system of Bowcock et al.22. In their system, three sexually dimorphic traits (nuptial pad size, skin roughness and skin colouration) are scored from 0 to 2, and the scores from those three traits are summed to create a final value (on a 6-point scale) for the degree of elaboration of male-specific secondary sexual characteristics. We scored reproductive condition in adult female toads based on whether or not egg masses were visible during dissection, based on dissected toads from both “toad-buster” and telemetry samples.

Statistical methods

Data were analysed in R version 4.2.025. We used Linear Mixed Models (LMMs), Generalised Linear Mixed Models (GLMMs) and logistic regressions for our analyses. The R packages ‘tidyverse’26, ‘lmerTest’27, and ‘performance’28 were used.

Habitat data

We compared habitat variables between burned and unburned sites, and attributes of toads in burned versus unburned sites, using GLMMs (with negative binomial distribution) for count data (models were checked for overdispersion29) and LMMs on distance data, using ln-transformations where required to achieve normality. LMMs were used on non-normal percentage data, which were ln- and then logit-transformed (using log[(P + e)/(1 − P + e)], where e is the lowest non-zero number, halved)30. We used toad id, site (sampling location) and sampling trip (2019 versus 2020) as random factors.

Anuran transect data

Counts of toads in burned versus unburned areas were compared both directly via GLMMs with a negative binomial distribution and relative to the numbers of frogs sighted along the same transects (binding the columns in R as ‘number of toads, number of amphibians – number of toads’ and using a GLMM with a binomial distribution). We used site as a random factor.

Telemetry data

For telemetry data, we analysed response variables via LMMs, and ln-transformed data where relevant to achieve normality.

Dissection data

We used LMMs for SUL, body mass, body condition and organ mass residuals (e.g., fat body mass relative to body mass). For prey item data, we used a poisson distribution with row number as a random factor, as the negative binomial and beta distribution GLMMs were overdispersed (see31). We used LMM for number of prey items and number of prey groups, with site as a random factor. Where models failed to converge, we reduced or removed the error term(s). Analyses were restricted to toads ≥ 70 mm SUL, because animals below this size were difficult to sex. We also performed nominal logistic regression to explore variation in sex ratio and male secondary sexual traits.

Reproductive condition

We used LMM for male secondary sexual characteristic display, using site as a random factor. For ovary presence, we used a binomial GLMM with a logit link, using site as a random factor. We used a LMM of the residual values from ovary mass relative to body mass (ln-transformed), using site as a random factor.

Ethics declarations

All procedures were performed in accordance with the relevant guidelines and regulations approved by Macquarie University Animal Ethics Committee (ARA Number: 2019/040-2) and in accordance with ARRIVE guidelines.

Source: Ecology -

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