Adaptation or preadaptation: why are keelback snakes (Tropidonophis mairii) less vulnerable to invasive cane toads (Bufo marinus) than are other Australian snakes?

John Llewelyn*, Ben L. Phillips, Greg P. Brown, Lin Schwarzkopf, Ross A. Alford, Richard Shine

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


Biological invasions can expose native predators to novel prey which may be less nutritious or detrimental to predators. The introduction and subsequent spread of cane toads (Bufo marinus) through Australia has killed many anuran-eating snakes unable to survive the toad's toxins. However, one native species, the keelback snake (Tropidonophis mairii), is relatively resistant to toad toxins and remains common in toad-infested areas. Is the keelback's ability to coexist with toads a function of its ancestral Asian origins, or a consequence of rapid adaptation since cane toads arrived in Australia? And does the snake's feeding preference for frogs rather than toads reflect an innate or learned behaviour? We compared keelback populations long sympatric with toads with a population that has encountered toads only recently. Unlike toad-vulnerable snake species, sympatry with toads has not affected keelback toxin tolerances or feeding responses: T. mairii from toad-sympatric and toad-naïve populations show a similar sensitivity to toad toxin, and a similar innate preference for frogs rather than toads. Feeding responses of neonatal keelbacks demonstrate that learning plays little or no role in the snake's aversion to toads. Thus, behavioural aversion to B. marinus as prey, and physiological tolerance to toad toxins are pre-existing innate characteristics of Australian keelbacks rather than adaptations to the cane toad's invasion of Australia. Such traits were most likely inherited from ancestral keelbacks that adapted to the presence of bufonids in Asia. Our results suggest that the impact of invasive species on native taxa may be strongly influenced by the biogeographic histories of the species involved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13-24
Number of pages12
JournalEvolutionary Ecology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • preadaptation
  • introduced species
  • chemical defense
  • cane toad
  • keelback

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