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To save endangered ferrets, scientists are using drones that shoot M&Ms at prairie dogs

Drones shooting M&Ms to feed prairie dogs in order to save endangered ferrets. It’s quite a story, and it starts with M&Ms being smeared with peanut butter. Apparently you (and I) aren’t the only animals on the planet that like peanut butter and M&Ms.

Thanks to the possibly universal attraction of M&Ms, among mammals anyway, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is planning to use the tempting candy, smeared with vaccine-laced peanut butter, to attract and protect prairie dogs, according to The Guardian.

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The purpose of the program is to protect prairie dogs from a plague currently epidemic across the Great Plains. (It’s the sylvatic plague, and yes, it involves the same bacterium that causes bubonic plague in humans.)

The bottom line here, however, is to save ferrets. The black-footed ferret is an endangered species that also suffers from the plague but even worse, faces extinction without prairie dogs. Prairie dogs are a staple in ferret diet and prairie dog burrows give ferrets shelter. So, save the prairie dogs and that will save the ferrets — minus some prairie dogs.

The challenge, however, is to find the most effective way to distribute the M&Ms smeared with vaccine-laced peanut butter to prairie dogs in the wild. You can’t just rain M&Ms over the whole Great Plains. And it would take too many people too long to go the Johnny Appleseed route, walking around and distributing hands full of M&Ms to prairie dog communities. It also wouldn’t work to just dump big piles of M&Ms and hope for the best; wild pigs or other large mammals would show up and eat the whole pile.

The answer? Drones. The Fish and Wildlife Service is working with private contractor to build what agency biologist Randy Machett calls a “glorified gumball machine.” The drones will be rigged to drop M&Ms every 30 feet and fire them left and right — dropping three medicated candies at the same time. They are using a modified fish-bait machine and adding a dye to the smear so the candy will leave telltale signs on the whiskers of prairie dogs that eat the candy.

After an initial trial in Montana, the FWS plans to implement the program to save ferrets in Arizona and Colorado. Early signs look good, according to Machett, who says prairie dogs found the treated M&Ms “delicious” in lab tests.

“It is the fastest, cheapest way to distribute the vaccine,” Machett said. “We are hopeful this oral vaccine will be used to mitigate plague sites and treat tens of thousands of acres each year.