A species of snake has become one of nature’s most successful invaders by hitchhiking, a team of international scientists has discovered. And it may not be finished yet.
With a nod to the 2006 Hollywood thriller Snakes on a Plane, researchers say cat-eyed snakes – from the genus Boiga – first found their way from their native Australia to the Pacific island of Guam on troop carriers during World War II.
Since then they have driven many of Guam’s native bird species into extinction, with only three now found on the island.
“The snake’s impact was so devastating it now ranks among the worst pests of all time,” says biologist Bryan Fry from the University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia, who led the project.
The worry now is that they will spread their wings further. Fry says they have taken to hitching a ride on US military planes heading from Guam to 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,” he notes.
“Now we know more about the snake’s basic biology, we can help in developing a smart approach to preventing and managing this and other invasive species.”
Cat-eyed snakes evolved in Africa and rapidly spread across the Indian subcontinent, throughout South-East Asia and to Australia. Their toxin type was responsible for their explosive natural spread.
The project brought together researchers from UQ and Florida State University in the US. Their paper was published in Journal of Molecular Evolution.
Nick Carne is the editor of Cosmos Online and editorial manager for The Royal Institution of Australia.
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