How an Old Bird Poop Law Can Help You Claim an Island


Want to live on your very own island? Of course you do. Believe it or not, there’s a federal law which could (at least in theory) help you snag one for free. First, you’ll need to make sure that it’s covered with fecal matter. Let us explain.


In 1856, Capitol Hill stood divided as ever over slavery, but politicians north and south of the Mason-Dixon line could all agree on one thing: America desperately needed more bird poop.

Avian excrement was big business at the time. For at least 1500 years, South American farmers had used dried seafowl feces, which the Quechua and later the Spanish called “guano,” as a fertilizer. Soluble and nutrient-rich, its virtues were many. Coastal Peru in particular had an abundance of this material, since the country’s warm climate attracts migratory birds en masse.

So, naturally, Peru was a big player in the international guano market. And during the 1840s, demand for this “white gold” soared like a high-flying albatross. Across the Atlantic, it proved sensationally popular with British agriculturalists. In 1842, Antony Gibbs and Sons—a U.K. trading company—entered Peru’s bird scat game. By 1848, they’d built a worldwide monopoly: as one common jingle declared, “Mr. Gibbs made his dibs selling the turds of foreign birds.

Uncle Sam didn’t appreciate said “dibs.” From New England to Louisiana, U.S. farmers jumped all over the guano bandwagon. Yet, domestic fowl couldn’t squeeze out sufficient quantities and, thanks to British merchants, imported waste came with a steep price tag. Many attempts were made at busting the U.K.’s stranglehold, but none proved successful. 

Public outcry escalated until, finally, Congress hatched a solution. Senator and former New York governor William H. Seward introduced a bill that ultimately became the Guano Islands Act. Passed on August 18th, 1856, the law still stands. 


According to the Act, should a U.S. citizen find guano upon “any island, rock, or key,” that person may claim the territory for America. However, there are a few provisos. The spot in question can’t be inhabited or fall “within lawful jurisdiction of any other government.” Furthermore, when all is said and done, the claim’s validity remains subject to the president’s “discretion.”

Assuming the island you happened upon satisfies all these requirements, there may be a few perks in store for you. At “the pleasure of congress,” a discoverer may be granted the “exclusive right” to live on his or her island “for the purpose of obtaining guano, and of selling and delivering the same to citizens of the United States.”

Prospective salesmen shouldn’t plan on getting rich, by the way. After carting up top-quality poo for shipment, you can’t charge more than $8/ton in 1856 dollars (the bill itself makes no allowance for inflation adjustment, but you might be able to argue for one anyway, which would bring the price up to roughly $222.22/ton). Those who’d rather let someone else come along and physically gather it will have to make do with half as much.    

Also, don’t think that you can just go around breaking federal laws once you’re settled. In 1889, a murder took place upon the Caribbean island of Navassa, which was obtained through the Act. This led the Supreme Court to decide that since the terrain was U.S.-owned soil, the American legal system still applied there.  


Navassa’s guano mining operations ceased when President McKinley had the island evacuated in 1898—just after the Spanish-American War broke out. 

Eighteen years later, Woodrow Wilson officially reserved this now-abandoned place for the construction of a lighthouse. In so doing, ownership of Navassa was effectively revoked from the eponymous Phosphate Company and the area fell under federal custody.

America’s coast guard would maintain a presence on the otherwise-uninhabited locale until this lighthouse made the transition from being human-operated to automated. In September, 1996, the U.S.C.G. removed its equipment and personnel, leaving Navassa empty again.

Entrepreneurs love nothing more than a vacuum. Pasadena resident Bill Warren assumed that because the coast guard had abandoned Navassa, it was ripe for the taking. “I flexed my muscles,” he said, “and claimed the island under the Guano Act.”

By then, guano—long upstaged by artificial fertilizers—had once more become a valuable resource thanks to the rise of organic gardening. Suddenly, Navassa’s abundant bird waste made her smell like a malodorous gold mine. Warren wasted little time.

The Act never states that U.S. citizens can’t claim an island that’s already been claimed and abandoned. Hence, Navassa looked like fair game. The Californian filed an “affidavit of discovery, occupation, and possession” with the State Department. Frustratingly, he didn’t get an official response. Several unanswered faxes later, Warren sued his own country in 1997, arguing that this silence had cost him $12 million worth of lost revenue (eventually, he demanded $50 million). 

Alas, fate wasn’t with him. The Guano Islands Act only grants temporary licenses to operate on a given landmass. The year 2000 saw a U.S. Appeals Court rule that our government may terminate these licenses at any time. Furthermore, since Wilson’s lighthouse project had long-since placed Navassa under federal ownership, nobody could use the Act to claim it. 

Therefore—as the court explained—Mr. Warren had “failed to demonstrate a legally cognizable interest in Navassa Island or its guano.” 


Certain claims may have died awkward legal deaths, but—in the end—Seward’s brainchild helped his country nab over 100 outcroppings such as Johnston Island, which hosted a strategic airbase during World War II.

Hypothetically, one can still capitalize on the Guano Islands Act. The main snag, of course, is our planet’s dearth of available, jurisdiction-free land. Hence, your best bet might involve volcanoes. This past winter, underwater eruptions produced an entirely new Pacific island. Keep your fingers crossed that it's covered in bird poo.

Bizarre New Species of Crabs and a Giant Sea Cockroach Discovered in Waters Off Indonesia
One known species of isopod, or "giant sea cockroach"
One known species of isopod, or "giant sea cockroach"

A crab with green googly eyes, another with "ears" resembling peanuts, and a species of giant sea cockroach are among the dozen new kinds of crustaceans discovered by scientists in the waters off Indonesia, Channel News Asia reports.

These finds are the result of a two-week expedition by Indonesian and Singaporean scientists with the South Java Deep Sea Biodiversity Expedition (SJADES 2018), which involved exploring deep waters in the Sunda Strait (the waterway separating the islands of Sumatra and Java in Southeast Asia) and the Indian Ocean. Using trawls, dredges, and other tools, researchers brought a huge variety of deep-sea life to the surface—some species for the very first time.

"The world down there is an alien world," Peter Ng, chief scientist of the expedition, told Channel News Asia. "You have waters that go down more than 2000 to 3000 meters [9800 feet], and we do not know … the animal life that's at the bottom."

The giant sea cockroach—technically a giant isopod, also nicknamed a Darth Vader isopod—is a new species in the genus Bathynomus, measuring almost a foot long and found more than 4000 feet deep. The isopods are occasionally seen on the ocean floor, where they scuttle around scavenging for dead fish and other animals. This marked the first time the genus has ever been recorded in Indonesia.

Another find is a spider crab nicknamed Big Ears, though it doesn't actually have ears—its peanut-shaped plates are used to protect the crab's eyes.

More than 800 species were collected during the expedition, accounting for 12,000 individual animals. Researchers say it will take up to two years to study all of them. In addition to the 12 species that are completely new to science, 40 were seen for the first time in Indonesia. Creatures that the scientists dubbed a chain-saw lobster, an ice cream cone worm, and a cock-eyed squid were among some of the rarer finds.

A "Chain-Saw Lobster"
Nicknamed the "Chain-Saw Lobster," this creature is a rare blind lobster, found only in the deep seas.

Researchers took to the giant sea cockroach quickly, with some of the crew members reportedly calling it “cute” and cradling it like a baby. Check out Channel News Asia Insider's video below for more insight into their creepy finds.

[h/t Channel News Asia]

The Mysterious Case of the Severed Feet in British Columbia

While walking on the beach, many people look out for a number of things: Shells, buried treasure, crabs, and dolphins among them. But if you’re on a beach in British Columbia, you might want to keep an eye out for something a little more sinister—about 15 severed feet have washed up on the shores there in the past few years. The latest was found on May 6, wedged in a mass of logs on Gabriola Island, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The feet have been surprising unlucky British Columbians for over a decade. The first appeared back in 2007 on Jedediah Island; it was eventually matched to a deceased man whose family declined to provide additional information. Bizarre, but not particularly alarming—until another one showed up on Gabriola Island less than a month later. More feet followed, and though some were matched to missing persons, most remained anonymous (feet, unfortunately, don’t contain much identifying information). Instead, police focused on the fact that each foot was encased in a running shoe—though sizes, genders, and brands differed.

This seems like a real-life episode of The X-Files, but it turns out there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for the severed feet: They’re not really “severed,” which would indicate cutting or slicing, at all. According to scientists who tested the theory, the feet likely belong to suicide, drowning, or plane crash victims. It’s common for decomposing bodies to come apart at the joint, making it natural for the foot to come apart from the leg. But if that’s the case, wouldn’t hands be similarly susceptible to washing up on beaches? Nope, that’s where the shoes come in.

While the rest of the body naturally decomposes in water, feet are surprisingly well protected inside the rubber and fabric of a shoe. The soles can be pretty buoyant, and sometimes air pockets get trapped inside the shoe, making it float to the surface. Most of the “severed” feet have been clad in jogging shoes such as Nikes and Pumas, but at least one case involves a hiking boot. In that instance, the boot (and foot) was matched to a man who went missing while fishing more than 25 years ago. The most recent case also involves a hiking boot.

That leaves the question: Why British Columbia? According to Richard Thompson, an oceanographer with the federal Institute of Ocean Sciences, it’s connected to ocean current. “There’s a lot of recirculation in the region; we’re working here with a semi-enclosed basin. Fraser River, False Creek, Burrard Inlet—all those regions around there are somewhat semi-enclosed. The tidal currents and the winds can keep things that are floating recirculating in the system." Several feet have also been found further south, in Washington state, which shares a network of coastal waterways with British Columbia.

Others aren’t so quick to accept this scientific analysis, however. Criminal lawyer and crime author Michael Slade still wonders if a serial killer is afoot. "We also have to consider that this could be a serial killer," he said. "Somebody who right now is underneath the radar. That has to be on the table."


More from mental floss studios