U.S. to airdrop toxic mice on invasive snakes in Guam
andersen air force base, guam — Dead mice laced with painkillers are about to rain down on Guam’s jungle canopy. They are scientists’ prescription for a headache that has caused the tiny U.S. territory misery for more than 60 years: the brown tree snake.
Most of Guam’s native bird species are extinct because of the snake, which reached the island’s thick jungles by hitching rides from the South Pacific on U.S. military ships shortly after World War II. There may be 2 million of the reptiles on Guam now, destroying wildlife, biting residents and even knocking out electricity by slithering onto power lines.
“We are taking this to a new phase,” said Daniel Vice, assistant state director of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services in Hawaii, Guam and the Pacific Islands. “There really is no other place in the world with a snake problem like Guam.”
Brown tree snakes are generally a few feet long, but they can grow to be more than 10 feet in length. Most of Guam’s native birds were defenseless against the nocturnal, tree-based predators, and within a few decades of the reptile’s arrival, nearly all of them were wiped out.
The snakes use venom on their prey, but it is not lethal to humans.
The infestation and the toll it has taken on native wildlife have tarnished Guam’s image as a tourist spot, though the snakes are rarely seen outside the jungle.
The solution to this headache, fittingly enough, is acetaminophen, the active ingredient in painkillers such as Tylenol.
The strategy takes advantage of the snake’s two big weaknesses. Unlike most snakes, brown tree snakes are happy to eat prey they didn’t kill themselves, and they are highly vulnerable to acetaminophen, which is harmless to humans.
The upcoming mouse drop is targeted to hit snakes near Guam’s sprawling Andersen Air Force Base, which is surrounded by heavy foliage. Using helicopters, the dead neonatal mice will be dropped by hand, one by one.
U.S. government scientists have been perfecting the strategy for more than a decade, with support from the Defense and the Interior departments.
To keep the mice from falling all the way to the ground, where they could be eaten by other animals or attract insects as they rot, researchers have developed a flotation device with streamers designed to catch in the branches of the forest foliage, where the snakes live and feed.
Experts say the impact on other species will be minimal, particularly because the snakes have themselves wiped out the birds that might have been most at risk.
The mouse drop is set to start in April or May.
Vice said the goal is not to eradicate the snakes but to control and contain them.
Wildlife specialist Tony Salas holds a brown tree snake outside his office on Andersen Air Force Base, near the site of the mouse drop.