Rat Spills Worse than Oil Spills?

There are no trees on Rat Island, a tiny outcrop on the Western end of Alaska’s Aleutian chain. There’s also not too much wildlife, due in part to the thousands of rats that inhabit this small rock. Wildlife managers are hoping to give the island’s namesake the proverbial boot in order to restore seabird populations, which have no natural defenses against land predators.

A shipwreck in 1780 spilled its rodent load, and since then the rats have been in charge. This problem isn’t unique to Rat Island; remote islands around the world deal with infestations of the non-native species. Rat-removal programs have been popping up in Canada and New Zealand, as rats are blamed for half of all extinctions since the 1600s. I’ll repeat that: rats are blamed for half of all extinctions since the 1600s!

The results of a rat invasion are so devastating that wildlife refuge managers have maintained “rat-spill” emergency responses at Alaska’s ports similar to oil-spill contingency plans. In fact, Art Sowls, a biologist with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge argues that “it’s entirely possible that in a shipwreck situation, the environmental damage created by the introduction of rats into the environment would be even worse than that of a major oil spill.” I remember a couple of years ago that some rats were spotted around the airport in Anchorage, and a massive effort was unleashed to exterminate the rodents and find the cause of the “leak.”

So far as I know, there hasn’t been an infestation on Alaska’s mainland. But I think I’ll be steering clear of the islands for a while.

[via Reuters]