How lost ecosystem on Rat Island was restored
In the late 1700s, a Japanese ship ran aground on a desolate scrap of land in the Aleutian Island chain on what is now Alaska. Among the cargo spilled out of the ship that day were common ship stowaways: rats.
From there, the story echoes that of countless islands where the introduction of rats, cats, weasels and other predators upends the ecosystem. The island’s nesting seabirds had no defenses against the predatory rats, which ate their eggs and their young. The island’s bird population was soon devastated and the 10-mile-square slip of land became known as “Rat Island.”
In a new book, Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue, (Bloomsbury USA, 2011), journalist William Stolzenburg tells the story of what happened when conservationists decided to take the island back. In 2008, conservation groups The Nature Conservancy and Island Conservation joined with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to bait the island with enough rat poison to wipe out the whole population of invasive rodents.
In August 2010, biologists declared Rat Island rat-free. But the scheme didn’t come without costs, including the deaths of 320 glaucous-winged gulls and 46 bald eagles that had directly or indirectly ingested the poison. Nonetheless, FWS authorities have said the eradication effort will allow tens of thousands more birds to thrive.
LiveScience spoke with Stolzenburg about the controversy around reclaiming islands and the importance of protecting these isolated ecosystems. Read ArticleBy Stephanie Pappas