The Truth About That Snake on a Plane, According to Science

The Atlantic
The Truth About That Snake on a Plane, According to Science
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The Truth About That Snake on a Plane, According to Science

Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, we all got to witness the freak occurrence of an actual snake on an actual freakin' plane this week. And while news of the scrub python quickly spread from the side of a Qantas flight out of Australia to YouTube, actual scientists are pretty used to this sort of thing. Seriously. We asked a real-life snake detective.

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To be clear, it's perfectly normal — and fairly common — for a snake to survive for two hours while hanging on to a commercial airliner at temperatures despite vicious winds and at temperatures around 10.4°F (-12°C), as the Qantas python did before it succumbed to the elements. "The thing about brown tree snakes is that you can cool them to -5°C, and some of them will survive," U.S. Geological Survey invasive species scientist Robert Reed told The Atlantic Wire Friday afternoon. Reed told us that the scrub python is bigger than the snakes he studies in Guam, and so it loses body heat at a slower rate: "At 0°C for an hour, most snakes live." Which means that, yes, if the trip were short enough, a snake could survive even freezing temperatures. But, alas, the flight time on the Qantas flight was about an hour and a half — plus freakout time — and it appears this particular python was doomed:

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Along with USDA Wildlife services, Reed's USGS team spends millions of dollars in Guam to make sure there are, in fact, no snakes on planes, all the better "to prevent the risk of brown tree snakes to other islands like Hawaii," he says. After being introduced to Guam, the brown tree snake devastated the majority of the native bird population on the island, and — if Reed doesn't do his job — the same thing could happen to places like Hawaii, where birds have not yet evolved enough to elude snakes. "Snakes are very sneaky," Reed said. "There are literally hundreds of examples of snakes being transported by aircrafts," he added. Snakes apparently transport themselves all the time on both the exterior and interior of planes, hitching rides on wheel basins and cargo areas with relative frequency.. 

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"The reason this snake is getting so much attention is that people saw it happening and everyone's cell phones shoot movies now," Reed says. "Brown tree snakes from Guam have made it all the way to Oklahoma, Texas, Alaska, and as far as Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean."

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