September 11, 2015
By Michael Macek
Curator of Birds
The Mariana Islands are a beautiful Pacific island chain north of Papua, New Guinea and southeast of Japan. They were occupied by Japan in World War II until the United States took them by force and used them as a staging ground for invading the Philippines and bombing Japan. During those epic battles, the military ships traveling from New Guinea to Guam brought in their holds some deadly stowaways: brown tree snakes.
The snakes decimated eight of the 11 native bird species of Guam. The rapid demise of these birds prompted the Saint Louis Zoo to join forces with other organizations to form a group called the Pacific Bird Conservation Project—or MAC. The goal of this coalition of zoos, government organizations and universities is to proactively protect island birds and other species from the fate of the Micronesian kingfisher and Guam rail, now extinct in the wild because of brown tree snakes.
This summer, Saint Louis Zoo Bird Keepers Chris Johnson and Sydney Oliveira joined the many other Saint Louis Zoo keepers and animal management staffers who over the past 21 years have worked in the Mariana Islands. The two keepers helped translocate Tinian monarchs and Saipan bridled white-eyes to the conservation island of Guguan. Has this ambitious initiative shown results? Yes—the project has reported success in recent years with evidence that bridled white-eyes are breeding in their new location!
In 2004, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands wildlife department asked North American zoos for assistance in developing captive populations of native bird species to be used as source populations if the brown tree snake should further decimate the native avifauna. For several years, species have been collected and transferred to U.S. zoos, including the Saint Louis Zoo. The Zoo has been active in breeding a range of the area's declining bird species from Mariana fruit doves to the Guam kingfisher. The morale of this story? Watch what you introduce. Some invaders are relatively harmless; others can be catastrophic.
See video courtesy Toledo Zoo.