Seems Snakes on a Plane isn’t as a ridiculous film as we thought, as new research suggests snakes have been hitchhiking on planes. Feel good about that trip you’re about to take?
A team of scientists led by the University of Queensland has found that the brown tree snake, which has been obliterating Guam’s native bird population, made it to the Pacific island by hitchhiking on planes.
And from Guam, they’re hitching it to Hawaii.
What planes? Don’t worry, the snakes didn’t just slither through security to a business class seat on a commercial flight. According to the study published in the Journal of Molecular Evolution, they hopped on military transport planes somewhere around Australia during World War II.
“The snake hitchhiked on troop carriers from the Australian region and has since driven multiple native bird species into extinction, with only three species now found on the island,” said Associate Professor Bryan Fry from UQ’s School of Biological Sciences in a statement.
Fry told Mashable the snakes “can enter the plane either by slithering up the landing gear or being transported inside of cargo that they have crawled into. Once inside they are protected from the elements.”
But it’s not just the Australia region that’s accidentally picked up hitchhiking snakes — the U.S. apparently does it too, unwittingly bringing stowaways from Guam to Hawaii.
“The United States government is still flying military planes from Guam to Hawaii and the snakes continue to hitchhike,” Fry said in a statement.
That’s right, Hawaii.
“They’re regularly intercepted in the Hawaii airports, so if these direct flights are allowed to continue, it’s only a matter of time until they get to Hawaii and wipe out the birds like they did on Guam.”
The problem with hitchhiking snakes
Brown tree snakes are an incredibly large problem on Guam, with an estimated 2 million of the reptiles making themselves at home on an island that’s 50 kilometres (31 miles) long and 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) wide.
According to the Australian Reptile Park, the brown tree snake is one of the only reptile species in the world that has become an introduced pest. And it’s because of this introduction that the devastation has been so effective, as Guam’s bird population had evolved without snakes to worry about — they really didn’t stand a chance.
“For the last 80 years or so, for the brown tree snake at least, this biological advantage has been aided by the introduction of air travel,” Fry said.
The U.S. government, for one, has spent millions to try and eradicate the snake problem. In 2015, the U.S. Air Force dropped two thousand dead mice filled with painkillers on Guam by parachute as part of an $8 million program to kill the snakes.
UQ PhD students Daniel Dashevsky and Jordan Debono, alongside researchers from Florida State University, have been investigating just why brown tree snakes were so effectively pulverising the native bird population on Guam.
They were particularly looking at the brown tree snake’s toxin, which is rather venomous to birds — 100 times more toxic than it is to mammals (and humans aren’t super affected by it.)
But it’s not just the brown tree snake that has this effective invasive effect on birds, Dashevsky and Debono found, it’s cat-eyed snakes belonging to the genus Boiga, which evolved in Africa and spread across the Indian subcontinent, throughout South-East Asia and to Australia.
“[The brown tree snake] contains a toxin that’s made up of two smaller toxins joined together, a feature that was believed to be unique to brown tree snakes. Daniel and Jordan’s research has revealed that this is not the case and that any cat-eyed snakes belonging to the genus Boiga would have caused similar devastation,” Fry said.
“It’s just that this particular species was transported to Guam by accident.”
So, the snakes’ hitchhiking ruse is up, and researchers can start managing its impact on the island’s native bird population.
Just how do you stop a snake from hitchhiking?
Preventing snakes from sneaking their way into planes is not an easy task.
“The number one effective strategy would be to stop the flights from Guam to Hawaii. Quarantine Hawaii from it entirely. However, both islands are strategically important and therefore this is not likely to happen,” Fry told Mashable.
“Detection with dogs has intercepted snakes but the reality is that since flights are allowed to continue, it is really only a question of when, not if, they reach Hawaii. Eradication has proven to be impossible in Guam, with all efforts failing. So it is not an optimistic scenario for Hawaii.”
Not looking good, birds.