Ag Update Radio Interview with Heath Packard

Heath Packard, Island Conservation’s Director of Marketing and Communications, shares the history of IC, the benefits of invasive species removal on islands, and the future of eradication efforts in an interview with Michael Olson on Ag Update.


Rosemary: 44 minutes past 8am, it’s a Monday morning and that means we are going to talk agriculture with Michael Olson. He is the host of the Saturday Food Chain. Good morning to you Michael.Michael : Good morning to you Rosemary, I have a very exciting subject today we’re going to be talking a about islands in this stream. Olivia, who do we have?

Olivia: Today we have Heath Packard, director of marketing and communications at Island Conservation locally here in Santa Cruz.

Michael: Here in Santa Cruz. Welcome aboard, Heath. Tell us about the rats of Pinzón Island.

Heath: Thank you Michael. It’s a pleasure to be here. I appreciate this opportunity. There is a Giant Tortoise in the Galápagos Islands on Pinzón Island called the Pinzón Giant Tortoise and this tortoise is literally the size of your coffee table or larger. They can live to be over 100 years old and this tortoise has been declared Extinct-in-the-wild because for over 100 years it has been unable to breed in the wild, and that’s because of invasive rats on the island, which eat the tortoise eggs and the hatchlings.


A Galápagos Tortoise on Pinzón Island. Credit: Gregg Howald/Island Conservation

Michael: How did the rats get on the island?

Heath: Well there is lots of speculation about that but most invasive species have reached islands with human travel and human exploration.

Michael: Here, hop aboard our ship and let’s go visit the Pacific.

Heath: Yes, that is correct. Pirates, buccaneers, travelers explorer, etc.

Michael: So, here we go, we haul them all around and distribute them throughout the world and when rats get on a place like Pinzón Island in the Galápagos, they have no competitors, right?

Heath: That’s right.

Michael: None of the critters know what to do with them.

Heath: They have no competitors and the species that evolved on those islands over eons are what we call evolutionarily naïve. They haven’t developed defense mechanisms to avoid those kinds of predators.

Michael: It might take them 3,000 years to adapt and by then it’s way too late.

Heath: That’s right, exactly.

Michael: So, how did Island Conservation of Santa Cruz, California become involved with the rats of Pinzón Island in the Galápagos?

Heath: Well, we’ve been doing invasive species eradication on islands for about 22 years and we’ve had a program in the Galápagos now for about seven or eight years. We’ve been working with the Galápagos National Park to explore ways to rid their islands of invasive species.

Michael: Well how do you rid an island of rats?

Heath: Well it’s not easy, it takes years of planning. We have to figure out how to ensure that we can get every single rat because one rat left on the island that is pregnant can repopulate the island in a matter of months. And so, we use a tool that has been tried and true over 500 times around the world of applying a bait that includes a rodenticide that reaches the rats and when you get rid of all of them the islands bounce back remarkably, almost overnight.

Michael: So, you have to get rid of all the rats. You use a bait with poison in it. What happens when other critters eat that bait with poison in it or eat the rat?

Heath: Well we go to great lengths to make sure that that doesn’t happen. So we take years and years to understand the food chain and the food web and the migratory species and figure out the best window to apply the bait so that we minimize the potential to reach other species and in some cases we collect species and hold them in protective captivity to make sure that they aren’t exposed.

Michael: Did you do that with the critters on the Galápagos? I mean I can’t imagine that you are running out and catching…what kind of critters are there to catch?

Heath: Indeed, there were hawks that were collected so that they didn’t eat the rats that had the toxicant within them.

Michael: So you’ve got a monumental job then trying to figure out how to manage this eradication of invasive species. New technology shows up on the land. What is it? It’s called “push technology.” What is that?

Heath: Yeah, so we’ve been around 22 years. We’ve been able to go to 66 islands in that amount of time. There are other groups around the world that do this kind of work. All told there have been 1000 successful invasive species eradications on islands.

Michael: 1000 of them?

Heath: 1000 successful ones over the years. Yes.

Michael: Wow.

Heath: However, invasive rodents, rats in particular have been introduced to 90% of the world’s islands and there are about 180,000 islands. So that’s a big job. So we have a lot of work to do. So we’re trying to figure out how can we reach more islands, more effectively, faster, and make sure we have the tools and the technology to meet the scale and scope of the problem. So we are looking for transformative innovations.

Michael: And when we talk about transformative, one of the things that always pops up is the ability to re-engineer the genetic code of life.

Heath: This is a technology that we are investigating. We’re in a partnership with seven international organizations, research universities, and government agencies, and NGO’s like ourselves that are investigating genetic biocontrol of invasive rodents.

Michael: Well, okay, how does that work?

Heath: Well, it’s an investigation.

Michael: So I understand it is called a “push technology.” What does “push” mean?

Heath: We are looking at the potential for the use of a gene drive that can help to bias the inheritance of particular genes within a population. What we would try to do is create a construct, a gene construct within a mouse that could be introduced to a remote oceanic island to push either male gender selection or female gender selection so that you ended up with a population over the course of a few short generations of all one sex.

Michael: You could call that China.

Heath: All one sex so that they couldn’t reproduce anymore and they could just live out their days and you’d eventually end up with no more rats or mice on the island.

Michael: Well, one always wonders you know about what happens if that… Because you’re taking a gene and you’re sending it out on its own like a hot air balloon or something, it goes up into the air and it goes where the wind blows it. What happens if the gene somehow escapes into other…jumps a species for example?

Heath: That’s right, so this is exactly the kind of questions we are formulating in the partnerships we are pulling together to figure out what are the right problems that we need to investigate to see not only is this suitable in a practical sense, in a scientific and technology sense but is it suitable? Can we do it safely? Can we do it well? Where can we do it? So not only could we do it but should we do it? And if we should, where and under what conditions? So right now there is no science that shows any chance of lateral transfer but we need to prove that out. So we are doing this proof of concept work in the lab in highly contained facilities. First, to try and develop the concept and then see if it actually works, but at the same time we are doing risk assessments. We are doing ecological analysis. We’re doing a formal social engagement strategy so that we can figure out with the communities who might be affected, with society at large, is this something that we want to try? Are the alternatives something we are willing to live with or should we consider trying something like this? And what is beautiful about islands is they provide the perfect laboratory for us to contain something like this and study it.

Michael: So earlier Rosemary and the space guy were talking about sending a message out into outer space to whomever or whatever lives out there on the proposition that there are friendly people and they are going to love us when they get the message. Well they could be, and as that so is your gene drive too, right? This could be really incredible.

Heath: It’s got great potential and that’s why we’re investigating it. And we are taking our time to do our due diligence and really try to innovate the way we work with communities, stakeholders, and society to figure out is this something that we want to try.

Michael: Should we role the dice? Should we put the message in the bottle? Big impact on agriculture if you do this, right?

Heath: There is very keen interest from the agricultural sector as well as the health sector, because of course rodents are disease vectors. They are also a scourge on agriculture, farming, and big pest problem and food security issues. Some of the islands we’d like to work on have subsistence farmers, have farmers who are doing agricultural work and they’d really like to see the rats go away so that they can continue to farm and keep their lives going.

Michael: How did Island Conservation end up in Santa Cruz, California–which is an island unto itself you know.

Heath: Some say. That’s a great question, we were started by two professors from UCSC about 22 years ago and they were working on islands in the Aleutians in Alaska and off of Baja California. Counting birds and studying birds and watching those populations plummet because of predation from the invasive rodents that were there and so they thought “What happens if we intervene” and turns out it is quite a remarkable conservation intervention and so that is how we began.

Michael: It actually works.

Heath: It works great. That Pinzón tortoise that I mentioned is now breeding for the first time in 100 years on Pinzón Island in the wild because we removed the invasive rats from the island with the Galápagos National Park. So it is quite a remarkable species recovery story and they are reconsidering its status as Extinct-in-the-wild because now it’s breeding again.

island conservation numbered galapagos tortoise hatchlings

Juvenile Galápagos tortoises are raised in captivity until they are large enough to be released into the wild. Credit: Island Conservation

Michael: Wow. Rosemary, you’re from an island.

Rosemary: Yeah, I am. We have a lot of rats there too. Get going, across the Atlantic, you have a job to do. Dealing with those Victorian sewers, good luck in London.

Michael: Olivia, who do we have Saturday?

Olivia: Saturday we have Andy Dyer, professor in the Department of Biology and Geology at the University of South Carolina, Akan on crop resistance and variation.

Michael: Resistance and variation. Good, that is going to be exciting because it is kind of like what we are talking about a little bit here. Thank you very much Rosemary.

Rosemary: Thank you very much, appreciated this morning and that is the program is the Saturday Food Chain, Saturday’s at 9 right here on KSCO. 55 minutes past 8am this is Good Morning, Monterey Bay.

Spanish version / Leer transcripción en español

Featured photo: Lava Lizard in the Galápagos. Credit: Island Conservation

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