Q&A with a Guam Brown Tree Snake Biologist

I admit it: most of my friends are cooler than me.

You may have heard last month about the U.S. government’s plan to drop acetaminophen-laced mice on the island of Guam to control its invasive population of brown tree snakes. Well, I was able to get the inside scoop on this odd-sounding idea, because a college friend of mine happens to be a brown tree snake biologist on Guam and is involved with this project. Meredith, who has her own blog that you should all try to convince her to start updating more often, agreed to tell you all a little more about her awesome job and what is going on with the Tylenol mice. This may be the first in a series of similar Q&A posts, but that depends on me being able to talk other people I know into doing this, so we’ll see.

Q: Who are you?

A: My name is Meredith Palmer and I graduated with a degree in Zoology back in 2011. I have recently been accepted back into school for my PhD and am very much looking forward to grappling with my own research again coming up this fall! I will be working on the behavioral ecology of lions and predator-prey interactions in the Serengeti. (Note from Rebecca: yes, she is going to study African megafauna for her PhD. Wow. Meredith, can I visit?) Over the past few years, I have been working field assistant jobs in Africa and the Caribbean.

Q: What do you do for a living?

A: I am currently working as a biologist for the United States Geological Survey on the Pacific island of Guam. I am part of the Brown Tree Snake (Boiga irregularis, BTS) lab, founded by the famous (in some circles, at least!) Dr. Julie Savidge from Colorado State University. Julie was the one who discovered, in the 1960s, that the BTS were responsible for the drastic decline and extinction of almost all of the island’s avifauna and herpetofauna. Guam is one of the best case studies for the destructive power of invasive species and one of the few examples of an ecosystem being decimated by an invasive reptile. Extirpating the BTS from Guam is considered a bit of a lost cause at the moment (it would cost approximately a billion dollars to eradicate the snake from the island), but my lab studies their movement/dispersal abilities, feeding and reproductive ecology, growth rates, and tests new methods of trapping that can be deployed to stamp out the snakes more effectively should they invade any new ecosystems. Unfortunately, Guam is a major military hub and the potential for snakes to hitch a ride to any of our neighboring islands or – heaven forbid – Hawaii, if distressingly high. While a different sector of the government (USDA) is in charge of keeping snakes off the planes, another part of our job is to train for “Rapid Response.” Should there be a potential BTS sighting on a surrounding island, we can get sent at the drop of a hat to go over and confirm/deny the sighting and attempt to halt any new invasion before the BTS can establish. (More at http://www.fort.usgs.gov/Resources/Education/BTS/)

Q: What’s your favorite part of your job?

A: There’s a variety of projects that we get to work on, some of which take us to neat places and let us play with fancy equipment. I particularly enjoy surveys we’ve conducted of endangered swiftlet caves. The Marianas swiftlet is one of the few native birds left on Guam and resides in only a handful of caves in the southern part of the island. Every three or four months we get to go out and patrol the caves for snakes using military-issue night vision goggles! These things cost more than my car, and work just like they do in the movies. The caves also have old cave paintings from the indigenous island culture (Chamorro) on the walls and Japanese artifacts lying around from WWII. There’s a lot of WWII history to discover all throughout the island – such as the two undetonated bombs that were once found in one of our field sites! I also really enjoy living on an island. Although the biodiversity on land isn’t as high as other islands I’ve spent my time on, the underwater scene is mind-blowing.

Q: What’s your least favorite part about your job?

A: It’s a bizarre dynamic for me as a herp person to have to go around telling people on Guam that “snakes are bad” and to “kill every snake you find,” because anywhere else, I would be encouraging exactly the opposite behavior. Promoting fear and dislike of snakes goes against my core instincts, even though I realize that in this particular case it is necessary to instill this mindset.

Q: What’s the deal with the whole Tylenol mice thing, and what role do you play in that?

A: Acetaminophen is toxic to snakes, and a new control method we’re testing out involves filling dead mice with Tylenol and shooting them into the forest out of a helicopter in the hopes that the snakes find and eat these deadly bundles! The mice will be attached to streamers so that they get caught in the trees where snakes typically forage. Using the helicopter enables us to disperse mice over large tracts of lands. Conveniently, these snakes are very much generalist foragers and aren’t picky about consuming dead food (they’ve even been documented going through people’s trash and munching on BBQ ribs and chicken wings!) and there aren’t other animals on the island that would eat these type of baits and also get poisoned. Last year, a test drop took place in which mice were dropped that had radio transmitters inside. From what I understand, the radio telemetry results indicated that all mice had in fact been eaten by snakes. This next drop is going to be conducted over a large tract of land in the air force base. While the USDA is in charge of dropping the mice, our crew will be conducting the pre-drop and post-drop population censuses to determine whether there is a decrease in snake activity after the drop. We’re currently clearing transects in the drop site and control sites that we will patrol at night over the upcoming months. When we visually locate a snake, we will catch them, take morphometric data, and insert PIT tags into them so that we can tell individuals apart. Fingers crossed for promising declines!

There you have it. One other note, Meredith is already internet famous – her sweet trilobite tattoo was featured by National Geographic blogger Carl Zimmer back in January!

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8 thoughts on “Q&A with a Guam Brown Tree Snake Biologist”

  1. The image of lots of dead mice dangling from trees like Christmas decorations is bizarre! Also strange to think that the snakes I regard as attractive and nice (even when I was bitten by one, my own stupid fault) – they are native to my area in Australia and it’s not unusual to see them – are hated and feared. So there are no owls to eat the poisoned mice? Must remember not to leave our equivalent of Tylenol around the place!

        1. Ate them all so much so that I never saw one growing up on Guam until I was in a zoo in Illinois (in my 20’s) and low and behold in the bird house there was an exhibit titled “Save the Guam Rail” in an effort to get the birds to reproduce and not be extinct.

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