One Remote Island’s Battle Against Acid-Spewing Ants

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Notorious invaders likely native to West Africa or perhaps Asia, crazy ants cross the high seas on driftwood or as stowaways on vessels, and they have infiltrated many Pacific islands. Once established, crazy ants storm over any ground-nesting seabirds in their path, blinding and maiming those that don’t flee. For years they have threatened to turn this place, called Johnston Atoll, into an avian wasteland.

But this abandoned nubbin of land happens to be home to hundreds of thousands of nesting seabirds, among the remotest gatherings on earth. Thus it is also home to the Crazy Ant Strike Team, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project designed to protect them. Every six months a new five-person crew rotates in, sets up camp—their only links to the outside world a 1990s-quality Internet connection and a satellite phone for emergencies—and gets down to the business of killing crazies.

Those teams have been far more successful than anyone anticipated at knocking back the enemy, and 14 species of seabirds now nest on the ant-free parts of the island—in insane numbers. The air itself has the pungent, musty odor of guano. The midday sky is a swirl of wings: Piratical Great Frigatebirds dive-bomb shearwaters and steal their fish; colonies of thousands of terns and noddies cover the island’s eastern tip, blasting a cacophony of caws and screeches for a mile. There are signs of death, of course, as in the severed head of a White Tern (prey for a Short-eared Owl that likely flew thousands of miles from mainland Asia or North America), but Johnston is boisterously, overwhelmingly alive.

Even in the quieter areas, the hostile squaaaaawks of Red-tailed Tropicbirds nestled in the brush are a startling reminder that this turf belongs to the birds. The eight-foot-tall pluchea bushes are bursting with Red-footed Boobies ranging in size from eggs to fluffball chicks to almost-fledglings to full-blown adults, all perched among the limbs like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

shared via: www.audubon.org/magazine/july-august-2015/one-remote-islands-battle-against-acid
article: Alisa Opar
photo: Tristan Spinski

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