Invasive Species Compendium

Detailed coverage of invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide

Abstract

Brain transcriptome analysis reveals gene expression differences associated with dispersal behaviour between range-front and range-core populations of invasive cane toads in Australia.

Abstract

Understanding the mechanisms allowing invasive species to adapt to novel environments is a challenge in invasion biology. Many invaders demonstrate rapid evolution of behavioural traits involved in range expansion such as locomotor activity, exploration and risk-taking. However, the molecular mechanisms that underpin these changes are poorly understood. In 86 years, invasive cane toads (Rhinella marina) in Australia have drastically expanded their geographic range westward from coastal Queensland to Western Australia. During their range expansion, toads have undergone extensive phenotypic changes, particularly in behaviours that enhance the toads' dispersal ability. Common-garden experiments have shown that some changes in behavioural traits related to dispersal are heritable. At the molecular level, it is currently unknown whether these changes in dispersal-related behaviour are underlain by small or large differences in gene expression, nor is known the biological function of genes showing differential expression. Here, we used RNA-seq to gain a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying dispersal-related behavioural changes. We compared the brain transcriptomes of toads from the Hawai'ian source population, as well as three distinct populations from across the Australian invasive range. We found markedly different gene expression profiles between the source population and Australian toads. By contrast, toads from across the Australian invasive range had very similar transcriptomic profiles. Yet, key genes with functions putatively related to dispersal behaviour showed differential expression between populations located at each end of the invasive range. These genes could play an important role in the behavioural changes characteristic of range expansion in Australian cane toads.