Ecologists try to speed up evolution to save Australian marsupial from toxic toads

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By April Reese

On an island off Australia’s north-central coast, researchers are conducting an unprecedented experiment: mixing endangered animals that have evolved genetic defences against their biggest foe with those that haven’t, in the hope that their offspring will take after the wiser parent.

The subject of the experiment is one of Australia’s most imperiled marsupials, the northern quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus). This squirrel-sized carnivore is struggling to survive a decades-long onslaught of poisonous and invasive cane toads, which quolls mistake as prey, with devastating results. The team now working on Indian Island has successfully tested the match-making technique in captive-bred quolls, and reported the results last month in Conservation Biology1.

If a further study now underway in wild animals is successful, it could provide some of the first real-world evidence that targeted gene flow — which involves pushing an adaptive trait through an at-risk population to boost resiliency — could be used to save an endangered species.

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