Menus Subscribe Search

Black Rats Take the Bait on Palmyra Atoll

• September 08, 2011 • 2:40 PM

Biologists claim victory over rodents on Palmyra Atoll in an ongoing effort to restore seabird populations, this time in the tropics.

In a precedent-setting project for tropical restoration, invasive black rats that had been preying on native animals on a remote Pacific atoll were successfully eradicated this summer.

“Although it will be two years before we can confirm rat removal, the operations were a great achievement,” said Susan White of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who oversaw the operation on Palmyra Atoll.

She explained how crews from several government agencies and nonprofit groups dropped poison by plane on Palmyra in June; spread it on the ground by hand and shot it by slingshot into palm trees overhanging the water. By August, there were no signs of rats on this “complex and challenging environment,” White said.

The largely unoccupied group of 25 islets, a national wildlife refuge in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, is located about 1,000 miles south of Honolulu.

Most island eradications — including rat projects on Anacapa Island in the Channel Islands National Park off Southern California and on Rat Island in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge — take place in temperate zones. On Palmyra, White said, eradication crews had to cope with dense rainforest vegetation, and they had to find a rat poison that would work when wet.

The crews also faced the daunting task of capturing and caring for the native bristle-thighed curlews, which are large shorebirds with long, curved bills. The birds need 24-hour care in captivity: Every few hours, their legs must be manually stroked and moved around to maintain their circulation. Project crews captured 13 curlews and set up a round-the-clock schedule of physical therapy for them from early June to early August, when they were released. Since then, eight of the birds have been spotted with non-captured flocks.

“People said it couldn’t be done, but we did it,” White said. “The team was phenomenal in their tenacity and dedication in capturing the curlews and keeping them from getting stressed.”

In addition, she said, the atoll’s native geckos were successfully captured and released back to their respective islets.

“The lessons learned from removing invasive rats from Palmyra Atoll are critical to the survival of seabirds and native species on islands around the world,” said Bill Waldman, executive director of Island Conservation. “Following upon successful projects in temperate climates, … the methods developed for and proven at Palmyra set a precedent for subsequent efforts to restore other tropical islands, protecting species in places where it might have seemed impossible before.”

As Miller-McCune reported in 2009, island restoration is a primitive science, subject to unforeseen consequences. Fish and Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy, an international nonprofit organization, maintain a small research station on Palmyra that provides information about how healthy ecosystems respond to invasive species, climate change and marine restoration. Island Conservation, a nonprofit group based in Santa Cruz, Calif., participated in the rat eradication with them, along with members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Geological Survey.

Black rats were likely introduced to Palmyra during U.S. military occupation of the atoll in World War II. According to Island Conservation, the rats preyed on ground-nesting and tree-nesting birds, particularly sooty and white terns, consuming their eggs and chicks; they attacked native land crabs, and they ate the seeds and seedlings of native trees. Several species of seabirds, including burrow-nesting shearwaters and petrels, no longer breed on Palmyra.

The incongruity of environmentalists killing animals in order to save others on the Channel Islands was the basis of novelist T.C. Boyle’s most recent book, When the Killing’s Done. In a conversation with Miller-McCune’s Tom Jacobs, Boyle discussed how characters in his novel grapple with the inherent contradictions:

“They believe in preserving wildlife and the environment. But they disagree on this essential question. Dave believes all life is sacred. Alma agrees, but she believes in making exceptions for practical considerations, such as killing pigs and rats to save indigenous species that are unique to this island, and are on the verge of extinction. You must sacrifice (some life for this greater good). That’s what this debate is about.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

More From Melinda Burns

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.