US government to air-drop toxic mice on Guam jungle

Friday 22 February 2013 13.25
The US government is to air-drop dead mice laced with painkillers down on Guam's jungle canopy
The US government is to air-drop dead mice laced with painkillers down on Guam's jungle canopy

The US government is to air-drop dead mice laced with painkillers down on Guam's jungle canopy.

They are scientists' prescription for a headache that has caused the tiny US territory misery for more than 60 years, the brown tree snake.

Most of Guam's native bird species are extinct because of the snake.

The brown tree snake reached the island's thick jungles by hitching rides from the South Pacific on US military ships shortly after World War II.

There may be two million of the reptiles on Guam now.

They destroy wildlife, bite residents and have even knocked out electricity by slithering onto power lines.

Environmental officials in Hawaii have long feared a similar invasion, which in their case likely would be a "snakes on a plane" scenario.

That would cost the state many vulnerable species and billions of dollars, but the risk will fall if Guam's air-drop strategy succeeds.

Assistant state director of US Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services in Hawaii, Guam, and the Pacific Islands Daniel Vice said :"We are taking this to a new phase,"  

"There really is no other place in the world with a snake problem like Guam" he said.

Brown tree snakes are generally one metre long, but can grow to be more than 3m in length.

Most of Guam's native birds were defenceless 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 can also climb power poles and wires, causing blackouts, or slither into homes and bite people.

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 tourism haven, though the snakes are rarely seen outside their jungle habitat.

The solution to this headache, fittingly enough, is acetaminophen, the active ingredient in painkillers, including Tylenol.

The strategy takes advantage of the snake's two big weaknesses.

Unlike most snakes, brown tree snakes are happy to eat prey they did not kill themselves, and they are highly vulnerable to acetaminophen, which is harmless to humans.

The upcoming mice drop is targeted to hit snakes near Guam's sprawling Andersen Air Force Base, which is surrounded by heavy foliage and if compromised would offer the snakes a potential ticket off the island.

Using helicopters, the dead neonatal mice will be dropped by hand, one by one, in April or May.

Scientists have devised a way to keep the mice bait from dropping all the way to the ground, where it 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 since the snakes have themselves wiped out the birds that might have been most at risk.