A new book asks: What makes humans call some animals pests?

We spend so much time making sure wildlife stays away from us, whether that’s setting traps, building fences or putting out poisons. Sure, unwanted guests are annoying. But why do we consider some animals “pests”? It’s all about perspective, says science journalist Bethany Brookshire. “We can put poison out for rats and protest their use as laboratory animals. We can shoot deer in the fall and show their adorable offspring to our children in the spring,” she writes in her new book, Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains.
Brookshire argues that we deem animals “pests” when we fear them (like snakes). Or when they thrive in a niche we unintentionally created for them (think rats in the New York subway). Or when they find a way to live in a habitat now dominated by humans (all those deer in the suburbs). Sometimes we demonize an animal if we feel like it’s threatening our ability to control the landscape (like coyotes that attack our livestock, pets and even children).

Through the lens of science, history, culture, religion, personal anecdotes and a big dose of humor, Brookshire breaks down how our perspective shapes our relationships with our animal neighbors. She also goes into the field — trailing rats, hunting pythons, taming feral cats, tracking drugged-up bears — to see firsthand how pests are treated.

Science News spoke with Brookshire, a former staff writer for Science News for Students (now Science News Explores), about what we can learn from pests and how we can co­exist with them. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

SN: What inspired you to write this book?

Brookshire: I wrote a news story that was about mice living with humans (SN: 4/19/17). [It was based on a study] showing that we’ve had house mice since we’ve had houses. I love the fact that humans have had these other animals taking advantage of the ecosystems that we create basically since we started living settled life. Every location that has humans has their “rat.” Sometimes that’s a rat, and sometimes it’s a pigeon or a cockatoo or a lizard or a horse. It’s not about what these animals are doing. Animals live in ecosystems that we create, and we hate animals that live too close.

SN: What surprised you during your research?

Brookshire: The reflexiveness of people’s responses [to pests]. People respond emotionally. When you make them pause and think about it, they go, “Oh wow, that doesn’t make any sense. I should not be caught trying to kill a raccoon with a sword.” But in the moment, you’re so wrapped up in the violation of what you see as your personal space.

The other thing is the extent to which our disdain of pests is wrapped up in social justice. A lot of times we see this hatred and disgust for animals that we see as “low class.” High-class people don’t have rats. And that’s really about social justice, about infrastructure and the ability of people to live in clean houses, store their food properly or even have a house at all.

Also, the way we deal with these animals often has vestiges of colonialism, as in the chapter on elephants. [In Kenya, European colonists] made people grow corn and sugarcane, which elephants love. Colonization created national park systems that assumed that humans had no place in wilderness, shoving out Indigenous pastoralists. Colonization created the market for poached ivory. And colonizing people assumed that Indigenous people did not like elephants or know their benefits. We are living with the consequences. Many modern efforts at elephant protection are spearheaded by Western people, and they assume the biggest issue with elephants is poaching and that Indigenous people don’t know what’s best for themselves or the elephants. In fact, human-elephant conflict [which includes elephant crop raids] is the far bigger problem, and Indigenous people have a long history of coexisting with elephants.

SN: In the book, you looked at many different cultures and included Indigenous voices.

Brookshire: It’s important to realize there’s more than one way to look at the world. By learning from other cultures, it helps us understand our biases. It’s only when you get outside of your own beliefs that you realize that’s not just the way things are.

SN: That shows up when you write about the Karni Mata Temple in India, also known as the Temple of Rats. Temple rats are not treated as pests, but a rat in a house would be.
Brookshire: That’s the result of context. And you see that in Western cultures all the time. People love squirrels. Well, they’re basically rats with better PR. Then you have people who have pet rats, who would probably scream if a sewer rat ran by.

SN: Are there any animals that you consider a pest?

Brookshire: No. The animal that I’ve probably come away with the most negative impression of is humans. It’s funny because we think we can extinct anything. And I love how these animals have gone: “Oh, poison? That’s cute.” “Oh, a trap? You’re funny.” We’ve tried to use electric fences on elephants [to stop them from eating crops]. And elephants are like, “Guess what? Ivory doesn’t conduct electricity.” Even if they don’t have tusks, elephants just pick up a log [to destroy the fence].

SN: Are you hoping to change people’s minds about pests?

Brookshire: I hope that they will ask why they respond to pests the way they do. Instead of just going, “This animal bothers me,” ask why, and does it make sense. I also hope it opens more curiosity about the animals around us. I learned from Indigenous groups just how much knowledge they have of the animals in their ecosystem. I hope more people learn. A world that you know a lot about is just a better world to live in.

A natural gene drive could steer invasive rodents on islands to extinction

In the battle against the invasive house mouse on islands, scientists are using the rodent’s own genes against it.

With the right tweaks, introducing a few hundred genetically altered mice could drive an island’s invasive mouse population to extinction in about 25 years, researchers report in the Nov. 15 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The trick is adding the changes to a section of mouse DNA that gets inherited far more often than it should.
Scientists have been creating similar extra-inheritable genes — called gene drives — in the lab. The chunks are designed to get passed on to most or all of an animal’s offspring instead of the usual half, and make those offspring infertile in the bargain. Scientists have used gene drives to reduce populations of mosquitoes and fruit flies (SN: 12/17/18).

But mammals are a different story. Scientists have previously synthesized a gene drive that gets passed on in mice about 80 percent of the time (SN: 1/23/19). But the drive isn’t strong enough to stop a population quickly.

Luckily, nature has it handled. A haplotype is a naturally occurring group of genes that gets passed on as a unit during replication. The genome of the house mouse (Mus musculus) has a particular haplotype, called the t haplotype, that gets passed on to offspring more than 95 percent of the time, instead of the typical 50 percent.

This natural gene drive has benefits, says Anna Lindholm, a biologist at the University of Zurich who was not involved in the study. It “evolved naturally and continues to be present in the wild, and we have as yet not found resistance to it in wild populations,” she says. It’s also not found in species besides M. musculus, meaning it probably won’t spread to other noninvasive mice.

Molecular biologist Paul Thomas and his colleagues decided to target the t haplotype with the cut-and-paste molecular tool called CRISPR/Cas9 (SN: 8/24/16). They used CRISPR to insert the gene sequence for the CRISPR tool itself into the t haplotype. When a male mouse carrying the altered t haplotype mates with a female, the inserted genes for the CRISPR tool spring into action. It uses a special genetic guide to target and inactivate the gene for the hormone prolactin — rendering any baby female mice infertile.

The best part is that the natural t haplotype can also sterilize males, says Thomas, of the University of Adelaide in Australia. Males with two copies — homozygous males — won’t reproduce at all.

“If you could get a t to spread through a population, you could get homozygous males being sterile,” he says. “And with the addition of the CRISPR element on top of that, we get homozygous females that are also sterile.”
To find out how well the t haplotype mice do on an island where mice are wreaking havoc on biodiversity, the scientists used a computer simulation of an island with 200,000 mice. The team found that adding just 256 mice with the CRISPR-altered t haplotype could successfully drive the mouse population to zero in around 25 years. Even without CRISPR, adding mice with the normal t haplotype could tank the population in about 43 years.

But models aren’t mice. In a final test, Thomas and his colleagues made the model reality. The team altered the t haplotype in a small group of mice in the lab and used genetic tests to show that those mice would pass on their new genetics 95 percent of the time.

“This is a clever idea, to build on the t haplotype natural drive system and use CRISPR, not for spreading the construct, but for damaging genes necessary for female fertility,” Lindholm says. “This is a big advance in the development of new tools to control invasive mouse populations.”

The next step, Thomas says, will be to test the effects in real populations of mice in secure enclosures, to find out if the genetically tweaked t can stop mice from reproducing. The scientists also want to ensure that any engineered mice released into the wild have some safety mechanism in place, so other mice elsewhere remain unaffected.

The final version might target tiny mutations that only occur on one island where the pest population is isolated, Thomas suggests. If the mouse escaped onto the mainland, its altered genes would have no effect on the local mice. The scientists also want to consult with people living in the area, as officials did when genetically modified mosquitoes were released in Florida (SN: 5/14/21).

Finally, he notes, 25 years is a long wait for some endangered island populations. “We would love to see CRISPR work faster,” he says. “It’s still a work in progress.”

A new portable device can reveal a chili pepper’s heat

Just how hot is your chili pepper? A new chili-shaped device could quickly signal whether adding the pepper to a meal might set your mouth ablaze.

Called the Chilica-pod, the device detects capsaicin, a chemical compound that helps give peppers their sometimes painful kick. In general, the more capsaicin a pepper has, the hotter it tastes. The Chilica-pod is sensitive, capable of detecting extremely low levels of the fiery molecule, researchers report in the Oct. 23 ACS Applied Nano Materials.

The device could someday be used to test cooked meals or fresh peppers, says analytical chemist Warakorn Limbut of Prince of Songkla University in Hat Yai, Thailand. People with a capsaicin allergy could use the gadget to avoid the compound, or farmers could test harvested peppers to better indicate their spiciness, he says.
A pepper’s relative spiciness typically is conveyed in Scoville heat units — an imperfect measurement determined by a panel of human taste testers. Other more precise methods for determining spiciness are time-intensive and involve expensive equipment, making the methods unsuitable for a quick answer.

Enter the portable, smartphone-compatible Chilica-pod. Built by Limbut and colleagues, the instrument’s sensor is composed of stacks of graphene sheets. When a drop of a chili pepper and ethanol solution is added to the sensor, the capsaicin from the pepper triggers the movement of electrons among the graphene atoms. The more capsaicin the solution has, the stronger the electrical current through the sheets.

The Chilica-pod registers that electrical activity and, once its “stem” is plugged into a smartphone, sends the information to an app for analysis. The device can detect capsaicin levels as low as 0.37 micromoles per liter of solution, equivalent to the amount in a pepper with no heat, one test showed.

Limbut’s team used the Chilica-pod to individually measure six dried chili peppers from a local market. The peppers’ capsaicin concentrations ranged from 7.5 to 90 micromoles per liter of solution, the team found. When translated to Scoville heat units, that range corresponds to the spice of peppers like serrano or cayenne — mild varieties compared to the blazing hot Carolina reaper, one of the world’s hottest peppers (SN: 4/9/18).

Paul Bosland, a plant geneticist and chili breeder at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces who wasn’t involved in the study, notes that capsaicin is just one of at least 24 related compounds that give peppers heat. “I would hope that [the device] could read them all,” he says.