Island Conservation Minus the Rodents, Lord Howe Wildlife Prospers

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After removing more than 300,000 invasive rodents from Lord Howe Island, native birds, insects and plants are recovering at a remarkable and unexpected rate.

Lord Howe Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its rare and iconic wildlife, was home to an estimated 300,000 invasive rodents until just a few months ago. Invasive rats and mice inadvertently introduced to Lord Howe via shipwrecks and voyages sparked a wave of extinction of native species, including at least five land birds, 13 invertebrates, and two plants.

To restore the island, its native ecosystems, and endangered and critically endangered wildlife, conservationists developed a plan to remove the invasive rodents and joined the more than 1200 invasive species removal projects that have been carried out on islands around the world. Now, just 15 months after its extensive operation, the island appears to be experiencing an “ecological renaissance” with wildlife recovering at an unexpected rate.

An example of the phasmid Lord Howe Island, the famous giant stick insect that once feared it was threatened with extinction by rodents. Photo credit: Wolter Peeters

Conservationists and community members are thrilled that the ecosystem is recovering without invasive rodents, and are finding that never-before-seen fruits and flowers are blooming from native plants. In the meantime, native black-winged petrels and snail populations flourish and a “carillon” sounds all over the island. The most notable recovery, however, is that of the endangered Lord Howe Woodhen, a spotty brown, flightless bird whose population once hovered around 250 and has nearly doubled.

We thought that by competing for food, the rodents would have had some influence on the forest hens – they forage in both leaves and forage [the rats] would probably eat some eggs and chicks, ”noted Dr. Terry O’Dwyer, Senior Scientist, Department of Planning, Industry and the Environment.

The critically endangered forest hens were isolated at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney during the rat eradication program. (Supplied: Office of the NSW Environment Minister)

The presence of invasive rodents was detrimental not only to the native ecosystem but also to the community of 350 people as rodents prevented the community from growing food and if the impact on wildlife were not taken into account it would likely reduce tourism in the long term . Despite initial concerns about the project, community members are delighted with these remarkable results. Once conservationists are able to confirm the absence of rodents, Lord Howe Island will be one of only a handful of permanently inhabited islands that are free of all invasive vertebrate animals.

The success of the Lord Howe Project demonstrates the remarkable benefits invasive species removal can have for wildlife and communities in the islands. It also reflects the continued strides island restoration experts are making to increase the extent of invasive species removal and focus on larger and more complex projects to prevent extinction.

Featured photo: A banded Lord Howe Woodhen. Photo credit: Duncan McCaskill Sources:
Australian Broadcasting Company
Sydney Morning Herald

Author details

Emily Heber

Emily is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara with a BS in Zoology. As a student, she discovered she was passionate about protecting endangered species and their ecosystems. Her background in informal education has allowed her to share her passion for animals with others, which she wants to continue to do while working with the communications team. In her spare time, Emily enjoys exploring the fantastic hiking trails in Santa Cruz and trying to scuba dive whenever possible. Emily is excited to join the Island Conservation team and help share the amazing work that is being done here.

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Emily Heber

Emily is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara with a BS in Zoology. As a student, she discovered she was passionate about protecting endangered species and their ecosystems. Her background in informal education has allowed her to share her passion for animals with others, which she wants to continue to do while working with the communications team. In her spare time, Emily enjoys exploring the fantastic hiking trails in Santa Cruz and trying to scuba dive whenever possible. Emily is excited to join the Island Conservation team and help share the amazing work that is being done here.

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