A team of researchers from the University of South Australia, the University of Adelaide and Ecological Horizons Pty., all in Australia, wondered if injecting a poison pill into an endangered species could protect it from feral cats.
In their paper, published in the journal ACS Applied Polymer Materialsthe group describes their plan and how well it’s currently working.
Previous research has shown that Australia has the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world, mostly caused by two main predators: feral cats and foxes. Both are invasive species that have been introduced to Australia by humans.
Efforts to solve the problem by eradicating predators have had some success, but not enough to prevent the extinction of 31 species so far.
A poison pill could save a species from extinction
In this new effort, the researchers used a new approach: They injected a poison pill into the prey’s skin to kill the predator that eats it. In their case, the prey is the bilby, a small rabbit-like marsupial with a long snout. Cats can catch it very easily, and the small mammal has no natural defenses against them.
To test the idea of injecting them with a poison pill, the researchers looked for a type of poison that would not affect the bilby but be deadly to the cats.
They found one simply called “poison 1080”. The poison is produced naturally in some plants in Australia, which allowed the bilby to be naturally tolerant to it. Cats, however, being an invasive species, die shortly after consuming even a small amount, writes Phys.org.
How should the experiment have gone?
Now having the right substance for this poison pill, the researchers set up a testing facility. They fenced off a region of the bilby’s native territory and injected several animals with the pill, then let them roam freely inside the enclosure. Cats are known to break into most fenced areas in Australia, so the researchers only had to wait for this to happen and see a dead cat.
Unfortunately, the timing of the experiment could not be worse. When the researchers finished training the bilby animals, there was an explosion in the mouse population. Millions of mice ran throughout the territory, causing havoc and sometimes destruction.
The researchers will try again
With so much prey readily available, the cats weren’t interested in climbing over a fence to get to some bilby, so the experiment didn’t take off.
But the researchers promised to be patient. They know that soon the mouse population will drop back to normal levels and the cats, which have increased in population with so much food at hand, will be hungry and seek out the bilby.