Drones and M&M’s Help Vaccinate Endangered Ferrets

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans on using drones to distribute vaccinations to areas where the black-footed ferret lives.

Kyslynskyy/Thinkstock

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just announced a plan (h/t the Verge) to save wild ferrets in the Great Plains region using brilliant combination of drones and M&M’s candy. Endangered since 1967 and thought to be extinct twice, the black-footed ferret is one the rarest mammals in North America—just 300 are thought to live in the wild. According to the FWS, the “primary obstacle” to this species’ recovery is its susceptibility to a virus called the Sylvatic plague, similar to the bubonic plague in humans.

That’s where the drones come in.

To protect the ferrets from the plague, they need to be vaccinated. But tracking down wild animals is tough, which is why the FWS has partnered with private contractors to develop a vaccination delivery system in which unmanned aerial systems (aka drones) will fly above the ferrets’ territory in northeastern Montana and drop M&M’s candies coated with the vaccine in the area.

Strangely, it won’t be the ferrets eating the vaccine candy. Prairie dogs, which make up more than 90 percent of the ferrets’ diet and are thought to be the main source of infection for the ferrets, are the intended targets of the treats. To ensure the vaccines are eaten by the prairie dogs and not other local rodents with a sweet tooth, the drones will operate from dawn until noon, when the mostly nocturnal competition is asleep.

If everything goes according to plan, the vaccine should prevent most outbreaks of the plague, giving a two-factor boost to the ferret population: More living prairie dogs means more food, and less plague means fewer ferrets die.

The ferrets are a keystone species, which means that they’re critically important to the ecosystem at large. That means when there aren’t many of them, their predators—like owls and hawks—die out. This causes the populations of other prey animals to skyrocket, which wreaks havoc on the entire ecosystem. (For a great example of one such disaster, read up on the removal of gray wolves from Yellowstone National Park.)

For anyone with pets, the ease with which this vaccine will be administered might seem strange, even impossible: It can take even a skilled veterinarian a few minutes to inject an especially squirmy dog. If they can feed the vaccine to prairie dogs, why not your pets? It turns out that only certain types of vaccines can be taken orally, and for most of the vaccines we give our cats and dogs, the animals’ stomach acid will destroy their efficacy.

At least for the foreseeable future, the vet’s office is going to remain a place of needles, not treats.