, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp 863-891

Have the Harmful Effects of Introduced Rats on Islands been Exaggerated?

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Abstract

Introduced rats are now being eradicated from many islands. Increasingly, these eradications are contested by activists claiming moral, legal, cultural, historic or scientific reasons and poorly documented evidence of effects. We reviewed the global literature on the effects of rats on island flora and fauna. We then used New Zealand as a case study because of its four-decade history of rat eradications and many detailed and innovative studies of how rats affect native species. These include use of exclosures, local manipulations of rat populations, video surveillance, and measurements of responses following eradications. The most intensive studies have been on the Pacific rat (Rattus exulans), a small South-East Asian species spread by Polynesians throughout the Pacific. These and the more recently introduced Norway rat (R. norvegicus) and ship (roof) rat (R. rattus) suppress some forest plants, and are associated with extinctions or declines of flightless invertebrates, ground-dwelling reptiles, land birds, and burrowing seabirds. On islands off France, Norway rats are also implicated in declines of shrews. Globally, ship rats were associated with declines or extinctions of the largest number of indigenous vertebrate species (60), including small mammals such as deer mice and bats. Effects of rats on forest trees and seabird populations are sufficiently pervasive to affect ecosystem structure and function. However, the data are patchy. Deficiencies in our knowledge would be reduced by documenting distribution and abundance of indigenous species before and after eradications. Comprehensive measurements of the responses of indigenous species to rat eradications would enable the development of testable models of rat invasion effects.