Snake's Last Stand

Morgan O'Rourke


October 1, 2010

Guam has a snake problem -- brown tree snakes to be specific. Accidently brought to the island in the 1950s as a cargo ship stowaway, the brown tree snake population exploded when it found abundant prey and no natural predators. The snakes proceeded to take over most of the island -- some areas have been estimated to contain some 13,000 snakes per square mile -- and have since eliminated most of Guam's indigenous bird species and caused major damage to the lizard and small mammal population as well.

But the snake's impact has not only been ecological. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the snake costs Guam millions of dollars every year. The snakes frequently climb on power lines and cause electrical outages throughout the island. Every three days, on average, there is a snake-caused power outage on Guam costing the island up to $4 million annually in repairs and lost productivity. Tourism has suffered because of these frequent disruptions and the general unease that many people have with the idea of sharing their vacations with a bunch of snakes on Snake Island. The shipping industry is affected because crews are forced to take time to inspect cargo, sometimes with the help of specially trained, snake-detecting dogs, to make sure that the snakes are not trying to hitch a ride to some new location. And snake-related health care costs are a concern since one out of every 1,000 emergency room visits on Guam are caused by snakebites. (While the snakes are largely harmless to adults, they are mildly venomous and can cause health problems for children.) On top of that, since the snakes have decimated the island's bird and lizard population, both of which prey on insects, the risk of catching insect-borne diseases like malaria or dengue fever has increased.

The way officials have been able to control the snakes so far is by constructing barriers and deploying traps to try to catch the snakes, but these methods have done little to reduce the problem. So scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA set out to determine if there was another way to eliminate the snake menace. And after extensive research, they made an interesting discovery. Evidently acetaminophen -- that's right, common, household pain reliever -- is fatal to brown tree snakes.

Of course, it's one thing to know what kills the snakes, but it's another problem entirely to get the snakes to ingest it. That is until the USDA, in what one has to assume was a cartoon-inspired spark of genius, devised a brilliant plan: mouse bombs.

Dead mice were stuffed with small doses of acetaminophen, tied to two pieces of cardboard connected by paper streamers and dropped from helicopters over the brown tree snakes' jungle habitat on Naval Base Guam. Officials hoped the streamers would catch on tree branches, thereby delivering the payload directly to the snakes that live in the jungle canopy. The weaponized mice were also loaded with radio transmitters so researchers could determine if the meal was the snake's last. If the plan is successful, it will be rolled out to the nearby Anderson Air Base and then the rest of the island.

Aside from being interesting in their own right, projects like this demonstrate the value of seeking out unusual solutions to traditional problems. On the surface, launching a biological attack against snakes with a battalion of killer mice sounds like the plan of a mad scientist. But if it works, it works. And its relatively low-tech nature ends up being part of its charm.

It reminds me of the "junk shot" solution that was attempted to plug the Gulf oil spill. It seemed crazy to think that a bunch of golf balls and pieces of tire could fix an epic environmental disaster. And while it obviously didn't work in this case, sometimes this kind of nontraditional thinking can lead to unexpected success.

General George S. Patton once said, "If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking." I bet he really would have loved the person who thought up mouse bombs.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)