Professor Dale Nimmo says native skinks and geckos can detect danger, but not individual predators. (ABC Rural: Daniel Fitzgerald)
Scientists at Charles Sturt University have discovered that native reptiles are smarter than previously thought.
The research published in the Royal Society Open Science journal revealed native lizards can identify foxes and wild cats as predators, even though they have not evolved alongside them.
Ecologist Dale Nimmo said the findings proved that native reptiles could survive the onslaught of destructive predators.
Skinks will sometimes forego food to protect themselves from danger. (Supplied: Ben Parkurst)
“We exposed a native skink and a gecko to the scents of the cats and the foxes and a bunch of native species including the spot-tailed quoll and the brown snake,” Professor Nimmo said.
“What we found was that these native reptiles were able to associate the scent of the cat and the fox with a risk.
“They avoided spaces where their scents had been applied in the same way that they would if it was a scent of a dingo or a quoll or a brown snake.”
How are they so smart?
Professor Nimmo said there are three reasons why native reptiles are intelligent enough to know foxes and cats are predators.
“The first is that there’s this idea that when a native animal evolves with a suite of native predators, they need to adapt a flexible approach to detecting predators,” he said.
“The second possibility is that it’s been 150 years since foxes and cats were introduced to the region and that’s enough time for quite a number of generations.”
Although some species take hundreds of years to evolve, Professor Nimmo said the skink could have evolved in far less time than that.
“The third possibility is that these animals are actually learning within the time frame of their life that the scent of a fox is an indicator of a fox being around,” he said.
Although Professor Nimmo said skinks and geckos are able to detect when predators are nearby, they sometimes evade danger at the risk of not getting a meal.
“What these animals are doing is going up to a potential food source, having a look at it, checking out the environment, sensing a predator and then not eating the food,” he said.
“Food is, obviously, one of the major resources animals need to survive and produce offspring.”
Professor Nimmo said future research will aim to determine how native reptiles have been able to adapt.
Skinks recognise foxes and cats, as well as dingoes and quolls, as predators. (ABC Open: Lucy Bradshaw)
“There are the three possibilities but it’s very hard to differentiate between them, but that’s what we might be trying to do in future studies,” he said.
“We don’t know if they learn how to avoid predators or if it is a behaviour inherited through their genes.
“[But] we do know that they recognise the scents of foxes and feral cats as a threat and respond.
“This gives some hope for some native species as we seek to predict or prevent the impacts of invasive predators on Australian wildlife.”