Toadfish: Getting a Bad Rap?

During my many dives and snorkels in our amazing bay, I have always enjoyed coming across toadfish (Tetractenos glaber) – their curious demeanour along with their big eyes and upturned ‘smiling’ face have always made them a delight to encounter. Unfortunately, my views on toadfish are not entirely shared by others who enjoy the bay. Toadfish, along with a few other fellow species of blowfish, have unfortunately developed a reputation as ‘pests’ or ‘nuisances’.

While I’ll concede that toadfish may occasionally steal a fisher’s bait, the reality is that the toadfish’s reputation as a pest could not be further from the truth. The fact is that they are a native species and play an important role throughout the marine ecosystems of south-eastern Australia. Toadfish play a key role as a mid-level predator, actively feeding on a range of smaller crustaceans whilst being prey for larger fish species such as tailor (Pomatomus saltattrix) and mulloway (Argyosomus japonicus). Additionally, toadfish are thought to play an important role in cleaning up organic debris, such as leftover bait and burley around piers and jetties, by acting as scavengers.

Troublingly, the toadfish’s undeserved reputation has sometimes resulted in their unnecessary death. Despite the species being inedible, some aren’t released after being unintentionally caught and, as a result, unnecessary harm is done to the ecosystems within our bay.

I want to make the point clear that I in no way seek to cast aspersions or place blame on the entire recreational angling community of Victoria – of which I count myself a part of. I simply aim to draw further attention to the entrenched misconceptions surrounding this species.

It is also important to point out that Victoria’s angling community has played and continue to play a vital role in aiding the state’s control of actual invasive pest species. Anglers do a huge service to our state’s aquatic ecosystems by removing pest species, such as the Northern Pacific seastar (Asterias amurensis) and the European carp (Cyprinus carpio), instead of releasing them.

The Northern Pacific seastar. Photo: Evatt Chirgwin

The Northern Pacific seastar. Photo: Evatt Chirgwin

I have seen more than a few arguments break out over toadfish, both on local piers and on internet forums, and I simply ask any of those that still harbour doubts about the importance of this species to refer to the regulations in the fishing guide set by the state fisheries authorities. Note that penalties apply if you are found not complying with these regulations.

There is a long way to go to correct the unfortunate misconceptions and attitudes about our lesser-known species. Use the social media and the comments below to let us know what your experiences with toadfish have been or if you’ve noticed any other native Victorian species that have become the undeserving recipient of a rough reputation.  

Evatt Chirgwin

Evatt is an evolutionary ecologist whose research focuses on how natural populations can adapt to environmental change. He is currently undertaking his PhD at Monash University.

You can find him on Twitter @EvattChirgwin

Misunderstood and Underappreciated: Our Native Rodents


Millions of people have a phobia of them and many more find them just plain revolting. They’ve been demonised more than a few times in popular culture – after all, J. K. Rowling certainly didn’t do them any favours with her character Scabbers. I’ve got to admit, for a long while I was among the people who scrunched up their faces at the idea of having to hold one. After doing some research though, my mind started to change – at least, for our Australian species. Rodents are the most abundant group of mammals on Earth, with over 2,700 species described within the group. Of these, more than 60 are found within Australia, across every state and territory.

The pebble-mound mouse. I mage: Wiki Commons

The pebble-mound mouse. Image: Wiki Commons

While some people may recoil at the idea of so many different rodents found throughout the nation, how they got here is actually quite extraordinary. Australia became a separate land mass 50 million years ago, but rodents reached the continent much more recently. The first wave of rodents arrived between five to eight million years ago, and the second wave, which was almost solely species within the genus Rattus, came in the last one million years. Both these waves were aided by the rising and falling sea levels around the Indonesian Islands, which are believed to be the origin point for our native rodent species.

Since their introduction to Australia, rodents have dispersed and diversified in extraordinary ways. In the northern states of Australia, a group of mice called pebble-mound mice are the only mammals on earth that construct mounds of small stones around burrows. Hopping mice are another unique group of rodents that are only found in Australia, moving in a hopping motion very similar to our native marsupials, despite there being no close relation between the two groups. In the southern states, the New Holland mouse is a social species that is particularly resilient to fire, with its population often increasing after an event. As well as being highly unique, rodents often aid the ecosystems in which they’re found, with recent studies finding that many species are responsible for spreading mycorrhizal fungi, which is crucial to the survival of various trees within Queensland’s tropical rainforests.

The New Holland mouse.  Image: Zoos Victoria

The New Holland mouse. Image: Zoos Victoria

If these species don’t fit in very well with what you imagine when you think ‘rodent’, it’s most likely because the images we typically have of rats and mice are actually invasive species. While the house mouse, black rat and brown rat are all found here, they were actually introduced by European settlers who brought them to Australia – and most of the world – on their ships. While Australian species can be carriers for disease, and it’s not advised for you to go and pick one up, it’s the invasive species that have been linked most closely to the spread of disease and infection.

Rodents make up about one quarter of Australia’s mammals, and are key parts of our environments and ecosystems – but unfortunately, despite their importance, they haven’t escaped the impact of their cousins’ reputations. Habitat destruction and predation from cats, dogs and foxes are major drivers for the decline of our native species. Despite this, funding for research and conservation for rodents is difficult to obtain, due to the stigma surrounding the words ‘mouse’ and ‘rat’. Since European settlement, half of our hopping mice species have gone extinct. Stick-nest rats, a group of rodents that construct their nests out of a variety of sticks and other plant material, are now extinct on mainland Australia. Many species, such as the smoky mouse, are being threatened by habitat destruction. As Australia’s human population increases, we continue to encroach on our native rodents and their habitats, often with devastating results. Since European settlement, an estimated 36% of native rodents have become extinct.

The rakali. Image: Zoos Victoria

The rakali. Image: Zoos Victoria

However, not all the news about our native rodents is bad. The water rat, also known as the rakali, has managed to recover after almost being driven to extinction. The species was nearly eradicated during the hunting trade of the 1930s and 1940s, and later in the 1950s due to people seeing it as a pest. Changes to permits as well as shifts in public attitudes have led to populations making a recovery. Similarly, the New Holland mouse was a species that was thought to have gone extinct for over 100 years, until its rediscovery in the 1960s in Sydney. Since then, conservation programs have been enforced to ensure that we don’t lose the species a second time around.

Approximately 91% of our rodent species are found nowhere else on Earth, and recent genetic work on some species indicates that the diversity may be even greater than what we can see taxonomically. But this diversity can only be preserved if we decide to protect and conserve these species. Like so many animals before them, rats and rodents are misunderstood – but we can change that misunderstanding, if we can just change our perception. 

Cover image by Billy Geary.

Threatened Species Summit

Next week, the first Threatened Species Summit will be held at Melbourne Zoo. The Federal Government has invited 250 environmental science leaders from across Australia to network and talk conservation.

The Summit will be held in Melbourne on the 16th July. 

The Summit will be held in Melbourne on the 16th July. 

Given Australia’s wildlife is in dire straits, this is an important set of discussions to have. However, governments are increasingly recognising the issue and putting some effort into halting species loss. Most recently, the New South Wales Government announced a partnership with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy to restore habitat and a raft of species in select national parks in the State. It’s initiatives like this, focusing on large-scale restoration, that are required across Australia.

This week, Wild Melbourne was able to chat to Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews about the Summit. He describes the Summit as being able to “…raise the national profile of Australia’s extinction crisis, mobilise new resources and partnerships, and kick-start the science, action and partnership-based approach to threatened species recovery that is outlined in the Threatened Species Strategy, which Minister Hunt will launch at the beginning of the Summit.” 

According to Andrews, the new Threatened Species Strategy is a line-in-the-sand moment for Australian conservation: “Clearly, ‘business as usual’ for threatened plants and animals in Australia would mean more extinctions. Our threatened species deserve no less, and by working on the basis of science, focusing on practical action, and partnering with state and territory governments and the community, it’s possible.”

The impacts of feral cats on our native animals will be a significant focus of both the Summit and the Strategy. Here, a feral cat carries off its dinner for the night, a bandicoot. Photo: Billy Geary

The impacts of feral cats on our native animals will be a significant focus of both the Summit and the Strategy. Here, a feral cat carries off its dinner for the night, a bandicoot. Photo: Billy Geary

The Strategy will focus on community action and partnerships, following from Andrews’ work across Australia over the past year: “My office and I have reached out to the community, forged partnerships and worked collaboratively with all levels of government, scientists, ‘Friends of’ groups, the non-profit sector and industry to secure more resources, build innovative approaches, encourage better coordination of conservation efforts, share information and promote action. I have been particularly humbled, but also enthused by the effort and care that so many Australian communities have for our unique animals and plants.”

Importantly, the Summit and the release of the new Strategy will thrust the plight of Australia’s threatened species into the national spotlight. As the Commissioner told Wild Melbourne, “our threatened animals and plants are ours to protect and we all have a role to play.”

The Threatened Species Summit promises to be an interesting day of discussion that the public will be able to follow online by webcast on the Threatened Species Commissioner’s website and via the official Summit hashtag on Twitter: #TSsummit