Shields introduced me to the techno-tort in the front yard of his house. Originally inspired by basic styrofoam tortoises that Boarman made in the 1990s, the techno-tort is now uncannily lifelike. Lying in the sand, the 3-D-printed shell had a similar solidity and texture to the real thing but was considerably lighter. This one had been color-printed, but earlier prototypes were hand-painted—and subsequent shells have been too, while the company searches for a printing pigment that will last under the desert sun.
In the field, techno-torts will be fitted with accelerometers and methyl anthranilate, a nontoxic bird deterrent. When a raven disturbs the shell, it will let out an explosive spray with a noxious taste and odor. A more low-tech version will involve packing shells full of meat treated with another nontoxic substance that will briefly nauseate the raven. The aim is to effectively communicate, through the experience of fright or queasiness, a simple message: Stay away.
Until recently, the main approaches available to conservationists for dealing with difficult wildlife have been limited—basically fencing them out or killing them. But now pedagogic alternatives are beginning to emerge, raising the question of whether fractious relationships might be modified by a little interspecies education.
Conservationists have tried to reeducate wildlife in the past. A range of animals, from stout wallabies to the giant lizards of the Canary Islands, has undergone training on avoiding predators, with mixed results. There have been efforts to teach golden lion tamarins to eschew dangerous foods, and whooping cranes to migrate. But these projects had only small, usually captive classes of students. In recent years, behavioral interventions have been significantly scaled up.
In the Kimberley region of Western Australia, for instance, researchers have launched the world’s largest cane-toad-mitigation effort, which depends on teaching wild animals about the dangers of these toxic toads. Introduced in 1935, cane toads have caused severe population declines among many species of larger predators, from freshwater crocodiles and giant monitor lizards to the critically endangered northern quoll, a small but fierce nocturnal marsupial. To these animals, accustomed to eating local amphibians without consequence, cane toads look like a tempting meal.
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Many of these predators might survive an encounter with a smaller cane toad, but the toads at the front of this advancing wave are large, highly toxic animals. So Rick Shine of Macquarie University in Sydney and his collaborators have sought to create their own advance guard. In a study led by Samantha J. Price-Rees, they introduced bluetongue lizards to nauseating sausages made of minced cane toad; in another, led by Georgia Ward-Fear, they exposed monitor lizards to juvenile, less toxic “teacher toads.” Both of these animals proved to be quick studies and began to avoid adult toads. Shine, along with a group of research and conservation partners known as the Cane Toad Coalition, is currently rolling out a multiyear project to drop teacher toads and sausages ahead of the main toad wave.