Testing new bait coatings for conservation

Mickey Mouse and Scabbers the Rat, are causing biodiversity loss in Aotearoa, New Zealand. They are committing crimes against some of our most endangered wildlife and arriving uninvited to the party. Protecting our taonga falls into the hands of conservationists and wildlife managers. New research plays a vital role in protecting our precious taonga.

Menacing mouse – a little creature creating a big problem. Photo by Nils Fleischeuer (CC BY-NC)

Would you be surprised to read that mice (Mus musculus) have been recorded eating live albatross (300 times their size)? I sure was! How could a little mouse possibly kill a bird known for having the largest wingspan in the world? Sadly, lots of albatross die from mouse predation every year. When mice aren’t eating albatross, they dine on many species of insects, chicks, eggs and lizards.

If mice are so terrible, what about rats? There are three species of rat in Aotearoa, the Norway rat Rattus norvegicus, Black rat Rattus rattus and the Polynesian rat Rattus exulans. They are all bad news – they kill adult birds, chicks, snails and insects. They also compete for food that should be there for our native fauna.

Due to the negative impacts of these rodents, and other introduced predators, many of New Zealand’s most critically endangered fauna are whisked away to predator-free off-shore islands. Some are protected behind expensive predator-resistant fences. PHEW, job completed, right? Not so fast!

Despite eviction notices, Micky and Scabbers can wriggle their way back into our protected areas. Maybe it’s a quick hop along a fallen tree that bridges the now not so “predator-resistant” fence or a long swim to an off-shore island. When they do appear, we need to have proven tools in the toolbox to deal with them. One of the tools to control them is cereal poison bait.

These baits are like your breakfast cereal in that they are made from similar ingredients – apart from the poison! Picture this: you reach for your new box of breakfast cereal in the morning and notice an open, very much neglected, box of cereal sitting at the back of your pantry. It’s been there for so long you can’t remember opening it (or you’ve just been ignoring it for many months). It smells stale and has gone slightly soggy, so you bin it, knowing full well that it will taste nasty.

A good rat is a dead rat! Photo by Jacqui Geux, iNaturalist NZ, (CC-BY)

Bait stations are used to protect the bait from the rain. However, just like you with your open box of stale cereal, mice and rats also have preferences when it comes to eating their cereal. The longer that bait is stored inside bait stations, the less palatable it is to rodents, the less they eat and the longer it continues to sit and weather.

To make things worse, the bait stations are often irregularly serviced, so wildlife managers need a bait that stays palatable to mice and rats for as long as possible. This is an issue on remote predator-free islands and fenced predator-resistant sanctuaries that have difficult access and limited funds. Stale or mouldy bait in particular will not control rodents if they aren’t even going to eat it.

If only there was a way to prevent baits from absorbing moisture and going mouldy – keeping the bait fresh for longer so that mice and rats were more likely to eat it when they come across it …

This is where researchers at Lincoln University (NZ), James Ross and colleagues, had an idea to coat the baits in a material that will do just these things. Also the material will not reduce the palatability of the baits to mice and rats. To test this idea, they created an experiment using two coatings, Polyvinyl butyral (PVB) and Shellac. Shellac is already used as a food glaze and as a coating to mask the bitter taste of Paracetamol/Acetaminophen. Shellac is also fully biodegradable, which makes it environmentally friendly.

The coatings were tested using four combinations of the aforementioned substances. First, they had to ensure the new coatings didn’t reduce the palatability compared to uncoated baits. If mice and rats do not eat the new bait coatings, it would be a waste of time to test them further. If Whitakers coated your favourite chocolate bar in something strange, you might take one bite and decide that the new “sardines & whipped cream” coated chocolate bar was not your vibe.

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An easy pill to swallow – A Panadol tablet, commonly coated in Shellac. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) Photo by venana, Flickr. 

The researchers also had to measure whether coated pellets remained palatable after extended environmental exposure because this is highly likely how mice and rats will find the baits in the real world. In the experiment the coatings were placed on the food the captive rats and mice were fed on. Mice, and more so rats, are neophobic (afraid of new things). So placing new food in their cages might affect the results in such a way that the researchers are measuring the wrong thing. Putting the coatings on their food means their wary responses will be minimised, since they eat rodent pellets every day. After the mice and rats had munched their way through their favourite snacks, the bowls were weighed, and the results were in – Shellac for the win.

There were differences between the bait coating combinations; Shellac was the most palatable, it performed the best for both mice and rats. Shellac out preformed the PVB coating and the mix of PVB/Shellac. This experiment demonstrated that mice and rats are picky eaters and highlights the importance of testing the different coating types. Coatings, although no thicker than 500 micrometers (really thin), will affect how much mice and rats will eat. Ironic given that mice and rats will eat out of a trash can – now we know they are fussily searching for the “best rubbish”.

This research is a step in the right direction for conservation in Aotearoa. I call it a small win for the native fauna. With Shellac showing promising signs, researchers and wildlife managers can test the new bait coatings in the field. Wild Mickey and Scabbers can try out some of the mould free, ‘fresh as can be’ Shellac bait. So next time Mickey and Scabbers arrive uninvited to the party, it may be the last thing they do.

This article was prepared by Master of Pest Management student Nils Fleischeuer as part of the ECOL608 Research Methods in Ecology course.

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