When writing about the Lesser Short-Tailed Bat colonizing New Zealand 30 million years ago, I wrote it from the perspective of the bat. But no species can colonize an inhabited island peacefully. The bat might think of itself as a pilgrim, while the native birds consider it an invader. And as humans invade and colonize each other’s lands by caravan, ship, and airplane, a form of animal imperialism has followed us.
Guam is a South Pacific island that was, at one point, idyllic. We cannot know what the ecosystem of Guam looked like 4,000 years ago when it was first colonized by humans, but when the dust and blood settled over the millenia, those early pioneers forged a sort of peace accord with the island, and the ecosystem re-calibrated itself to accommodate them. These people became the Chamorro, a culture based on the principles of respect and reciprocity. They had a mythology, but no religion; ancestor veneration took the place of deity worship. (Although there is one 17th century account of human sacrifice.)
Then, in the 15th century, the Spanish invaded. To say nothing of the misery visited on the people, the island was invaded by the rats, pigs, dogs, chickens, deer, and water buffalo the Spaniards brought with them; an ecological blitzkrieg. When control of Guam was passed to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War of 1898, we established a major naval base there (and introduced the poisonous and insatiable cane toad), which in turn was captured by the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. The Chamorro suffered torture, beheadings, and rape under Japanese occupation, and the island suffered the Giant African Snail which devastated the island’s crops. This is not to mention all of the invasive plants and pathogens introduced, which starved the local wildlife and pushed out the native vegetation. Then, in the 1950′s, when the island was again under the stars & stripes, we struck what could be the finishing blow.
This is the Guam Micronesian Kingfisher. No picture I could find could do justice to the magnificent plumage of this bird, which I have seen at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. It behaves very much like North America’s belted kingfisher: furtive, with a raspy, laughing call, and specialized for diving into the water to catch small fish. It was once found all over the island. Now the kingfisher, like most of the birds on Guam, is extinct in the wild, the victim of American imperialism and a little brown snake.
The reason Ireland has no snakes has nothing to do with St. Patrick. You’ll remember that waif dispersal, the means by which terrestrial animals reach distant islands, functions by three methods: flying, swimming, and rafting. Since terrestrial snakes can neither fly nor swim, they have to raft on floating vegetation. But only the smallest species tend to survive these voyages: mice, spiders, lizards, and the like. And the smaller, colder, and more distant the island, the less likely a medium-sized ectotherm will make it there. That is, before the modern boat and airplane.
Ecologists estimate that it was around 1953 when the first brown tree snakes were introduced, probably as stowaways in a cargo plane. Guam has been the transportation hub of our military operations in the Pacific since the turn of the last century, with heavy boat and plane traffic in and out of the island around the clock. The brown tree snake, a native of the Solomon Islands, couldn’t possibly have reached the distant island by natural causes. Nocturnal and secretive, its presence went unnoticed until the 1960′s, when suddenly bird populations all over the island crashed. The Guam Bridled White-Eye, an endemic subspecies, vanished. Then the Rufous Fantail. The Guam Flycatcher, the Micronesian Honeyeater, the Mariana Fruit-Dove, all gone. When the chain of extinctions, which started around the navy base on the Southern tip of the island, reached the island’s North shore, scientists finally discovered their snake problem. The tree snake specializes in capturing birds, striking from a branch above and envenomating with the fangs at the rear of its mouth. Since the snake has no natural predators on Guam, and the birds had not evolved any resistance to the species, the invader could eat to its heart’s content. It could also grow to outrageous sizes, from a standard 3-6 feet to an incredible 9 feet long. The last remaining endemic bird species, the Guam Kingfisher and the Guam Rail, were airlifted off the island and put in zoos to breed until we figure out how to kill the snakes. The kingfishers and rails that scientists couldn’t capture swiftly, and quietly, vanished.
“Quiet” is what Guam is now. It is a tropical island without birdsong. The only music in the forests of Guam at night is screaming buzz of C-3 planes above and the chirping of coqui frogs introduced from Puerto Rico. Otherwise, the silence is further muffled by the upholstery of spiderwebs that cover the trees. Without birds to eat them, the spiders flourish, draping entire trees in cobwebs and choking the forest with a silk napkin. The night is also dark. The arboreal snakes have a habit of climbing up power lines and electrocuting themselves, shorting out the power grid. The electric company, to save itself millions of dollars in damages, simply doesn’t turn the power on at night. And under the cover of darkness and silence, the snakes will often enter people’s homes, attacking pets and trying to swallow infants.
We do have a secret weapon: acetaminophen. Tylenol is poisonous to snakes. The best way yet to kill the elusive snakes is “mouse bombs“: dead mice stuffed with tylenol and attached to branch-catching streamers, which are then dropped from planes into the jungle. Additionally, the military has trained dogs to sniff out snakes at the airport, to keep them from spreading to other islands. But it may be too late. Brown tree snakes have already been sighted in Tinian, Okinawa, Hawaii, and even Texas… all American bases. The American Empire is also furthering the Empire of the Snake, an empire of silence. The problem started with the military, and we try to solve it by military means: German Shepherds and poison bombs and military airlifts for survivors. But the snake follows us, from airbase to airbase, all over the world, colonizing as we colonize. We hope to eradicate our enemies so that the Guam Kingfisher and others can reclaim their homeland. But until we stop conquering, we will always bear with us a new regime: the darkness, the silence, the slithering dread in the infant’s crib, the shroud of spiderwebs.