Campus News

Researchers find invasive grass causing spiders to feast on toads

An invasive grass species frequently found in forests has created a thriving habitat for wolf spiders, which then feed on American toads, a new UGA study has found.

Japanese stiltgrass, which accidentally was introduced to the U.S. in the early 1900s, is one of the most pervasive invasive species, particularly in the Southeast, in the past century. Typically found along roads and in forests, it can survive in widely diverse ecosystems and has been found to impact native plant species, invertebrate populations and soil nutrients.

In a new study recently published in the journal Ecology, UGA researchers found that Japanese stiltgrass also is affecting arachnid predators. Lycosid spiders, commonly known as wolf spiders, thrive in the grass. As their numbers grow, more spiders then feed on young American toads, ultimately reducing the amphibian’s survival wherever this grass grows.

John Maerz, an associate professor in UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and one of the paper’s authors, said they found the grass had the greatest negative impact on toad survival in forests where toad survival was naturally high.

“In other words, the grass is degrading the best forests for young toad survival,” Maerz said. “Another important finding was that the invasive grass affects toads by changing interactions among native species rather than the grass having a direct effect on the native toads.”

Jayna DeVore, who led the project while earning her doctorate in the Warnell School, said people often don’t fully realize how much structural changes in an environment can affect how animals interact.

When DeVore and Maerz originally found lower survival of American toads at eight locations in Georgia where stiltgrass is actively invading, they initially speculated that the grass was reducing the toads’ food supply by reducing insect populations-few native insects eat the Asian grass. However, after noticing the wolf spiders routinely preying upon toads in invaded habitats, it began to click, Maerz said.

Spiders typically keep spider populations in check, Maerz said, but Japanese stiltgrass is “kind of like a tall shag carpet,” and it provides the cannibalistic spiders refuge from one another. The accumulation of large, predatory spiders in these invaded habitats then results in higher mortality for small toads that have recently emerged from wetlands.

To test their hypothesis, DeVore and Maerz created cages where they could control the presence of stiltgrass and spiders. They found that spider densities were 33 percent higher and toad survival decreased by 65 percent in cages with the presence of stiltgrass. The presence of stiltgrass alone, in the absence of spiders, did not affect toad survival.