"Snakes. Why does it always have to be snakes?" Harrison Ford made this line famous in his role as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But for the people of Guam, snakes are anything but a laughing matter. They creep up utility poles, scale fences, and hunt down their prey, usually birds, in the darkness of night.
The brown tree snake, which can grow up to ten feet in length, migrated to Guam in the aftermath of World War II. According to DNA studies, all of the brown tree snakes in Guam descended from a single female who stowed away in a shipment of military cargo from New Guinea about 50 years ago. Without any natural predators, the snake population thrived. Experts say that an estimated 1,000,000 brown tree snakes currently populate the Pacific island of Guam.
In addition to causing power outages throughout the island, the snakes have managed to wipe out ten species of birds and bats, and threaten several others. The snakes usually avoid humans and instead prowl the forests to feed on wildlife.
The U.S. government has launched a major effort to prevent the snake from leaving Guam, spending more than $1 million a year for the project. On the front line in the assault on the brown tree snake is Andersen U.S. Air Force Base, where trappers use live mice and eggs as bait to trap up to 60 of the unwanted reptiles a day.
However, in Guam, the damage is done, most of it irreparable. Authorities fear that the snakes will leave the island, and populate other Pacific islands. At Guam's airports and seaports, special "snake-proof" fences are installed and police armed with terrier dogs patrol cargo areas to keep the snakes from catching a ride to other destinations. Despite these efforts, the snakes have colonized at least two other islands near Guam, and have been captured at airports in Hawaii, Texas, and Spain.
The good news is that researchers have found that acetaminophen, an ingredient in over-the-counter painkillers, is lethal to this species of snake. The next hurdle for authorities in the area will be to get the drug into the snake without harming the rest of the wildlife there. For now, the brown tree snake appears to be evading its predators.