Real snakes on real planes

I don’t like snakes. There is something about the way they look and move that gives me the creeps, even when I know they are members of a harmless variety. Apparently fear of snakes (and spiders) is a primeval instinct shared by many species that may have never encountered a snake before and yet recoil when they see one for the first time. On the other hand, I have no fear of spiders, though I know people who are terrified of them, so I am not a total coward.

So it was no surprise that someone decided that a film based on the idea of being trapped in a combined space in which a large number of snakes were running loose would be a surefire scare fest and so Snakes on a Plane (2006) was born. I did not, of course, go to see the film but I did hear about the famous line uttered by Samuel L. Jackson who plays an FBI agent assigned to protect a witness on a long distance flight on which someone has released deadly snakes in the cabin in order to kill the witness. (Language advisory)

But the idea of snakes hitchhiking on planes is not fiction.

A team of international scientists has discovered why brown tree snakes have become one of the most successful invasive species.

The research team, led by University of Queensland scientists, has been studying why a type of cat-eyed snake has been so effective at devastating native bird populations on the island of Guam.

Associate Professor Bryan Fry from UQ’s School of Biological Sciences said the takeover began when the brown tree snake was introduced on the Pacific island 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,” he said.

Cat-eyed snakes evolved in Africa and rapidly spread across the Indian subcontinent, throughout South-East Asia and to Australia, with the team finding the snake’s toxin type was responsible for its explosive natural spread.

“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,” Dr Fry said.

“The United States government is still flying military planes from Guam to Hawaii and the snakes continue to hitchhike.

“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.

One more reason, if you needed it, to dislike air travel.


  1. John Morales says

    From Wikipedia:

    Snakes on a Plane is a 2006 American action thriller film
    The story is credited to David Dalessandro, a University of Pittsburgh administrator and first-time Hollywood writer. He developed the concept in 1992 after reading a nature magazine article about Indonesian brown tree snakes climbing onto planes in cargo during World War II.

    (Six years ago is 2012, BTW, so…)

    Also, I recall it was something of an internet joke before the movie was actually financed.

  2. rjw1 says

    I’m sure that fear of snakes and spiders is a primeval instinct. It’s particularly useful here in Australia which has the world’s most venomous snakes and one of the planet’s most venomous spiders.
    Many years ago my wife and I lived on a farm in the SE of the country. It was in the days of snail mail and there was a walk of about 200m through the bush to collect the road side delivery. I was in the habit of reading the mail while I walked back to house. One day while I was reading a letter and oblivious to my surroundings, I heard a dry rasping sound and realised that I had ‘frozen’ without any conscious awareness. A tiger snake( very venomous) was halfway across the track, it started at me for a few seconds as if to make sure I had understood the warning and then went on its way.

    I’m convinced there’s some very ancient ‘software’ buried deep in the reptilian part of the human brain.

  3. EigenSprocketUK says

    #4 rjw: very much so. Seems that prehistoric parts of the brain are very fast at reacting without requiring any reason. The modern parts of the brain which can analyse it, reflect on it, and structure it into something to tell someone are much slower. I heard that it’s one of the reasons that brains are notoriously poor at chronology. (I’m sure we’ve all answered the phone and “known it was bad news” even before hearing it.)

  4. boadinum says

    Mano, your irrational (?) fear is the opposite of mine. I don’t mind snakes, as long as they’re not poisonous or squeezy. I happily remove garter snakes from in front of my lawnmower and toss them into the bushes. Spiders, on the other hand, give me the screaming heebie-jeebies. If I encounter a spider web I will abandon the lawnmower and run to find the nearest arachnicide, whether it be a stick, a broom, or a spray bottle of Windex.

    In my little patch of North America, I’m unlikely to meet dangerous snakes or spiders. However, the spiders around here often grow to the size of hubcaps.

    I don’t like to kill living things, but as long as spiders behave the way they do I will continue to make an exception.

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