Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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