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 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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