Skeleton HOV Buddies, Snake Control With 'Tylenol Mouse Bombs,' and a Killer Cake - Screwball Science of the Week

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Tylenol-stuffed mouse bombs dropped in Guam. Back-seat skeleton drivers, and if you gotta go it might as well be from a yummy cake. And a gratuitous shot at J&J. Here's your Screwball Science News of the Week.

It took me the usual three minutes to come up with these. Either 1) I'm really fast or 2) there is so much craziness out there that a stoned marmoset could have done the same job, and maybe in two minutes. I'd go with #2. 

Another installment of "Screwball Science of the Week" for your reading pleasure.

1. A "Skeleton Crew" in the HOV lane

I don't know what the traffic fine will be, but it's almost worth it if only to have a great party story. An unnamed Arizona resident must 1) really dislike sitting in traffic, 2) have a distorted view of the human body, or, 3) have a twisted sense of humor. How else could you explain this?

HOV Buddy.  At least he doesn't talk incessantly. Most of the time. Photo: CNN

Yep, some lunatic was pulled over by an Arizona State Trooper who noticed that there was a skeleton strapped into the passenger seat acting as a decoy so that the driver could use the HOV lane. You have to give the guy style and creativity points, especially for the plastic box (don't you want to know what's in it?) that looks like it's sitting on a non-existent lap. 

This raises a critical question:

Was the skeleton placed there or did the person who used to occupy that body die in the seat during a very long traffic jam (presumably not in the HOV lane) and then nature took over? Otherwise, where did the skeleton come from? Maybe from

I guess that's up to the police to decipher. They're going to need to find out whether the driver has skeletons in his closet.

2. Don't let them eat cake

You never know how or when your ticket is going to be punched. Could be a car accident, heart attack, cancer, a piano falling on your head, or a killer cake - the subject of this stupid article. To my knowledge, this represents the second known cake-based fatality, the other being a result of a poorly-chosen phrase by Marie Antoinette in the 18th century (although there seems to be little evidence that Marie ever uttered these words. It could have been "let them eat kale," which would have probably started the French Revolution even sooner.)

This time the location was Australia and the culprit was a piece of lamington cake

Lamington - a cake to die for. Photo: Wikipedia.

According to Yahoo News:

A woman died while taking part in a cake-eating competition to celebrate Australia Day, local media reported Monday. Paramedics were called to a pub in the state of Queensland on Sunday afternoon after a woman was involved in a "medical incident". Public broadcaster ABC reported the 60-year-old had a seizure after she 'shovelled a lamington into her mouth'''.

For those of you with conspirational minds, forget it. This was an accident.

"Police said the death was not suspicious and a report would be prepared for the coroner."

That's a relief. After 100 years of safe cake it would be a shame to have to change a successful brand name...

3. Dropping Tylenol-loaded mouse bombs on snakes

This one comes to us courtesy of Ross Pomeroy over at Real Clear Science and involves some real science – reptilian toxicity of acetaminophen (Tylenol). Back in 2013, the brown tree snake, an invasive species, was wreaking all kinds of havoc with the environment of Guam (especially birds) and also slithering into power substations (about 80 times per year) and screwing that up too. 

To the rescue: helicopters from Andersen Air Force Base in the U.S. territory of Guam. In what could be reasonably described as an unorthodox mission, 2,000 Tylenol-loaded mouse bombs were dropped by parachute in the forest areas around the base. No, it's not April 1st.

Photo: USDA/APHIS Wildlife Services via AP

Anti-snake mouse bombs. The mice are stuffed with 80 mg of Tylenol – one-quarter of a pill – encased in cardboard containers, and dropped with little parachutes. Just another day at the office. The cardboard containers open and the snakes, big fans of mice, chow down on their last meal.

What makes this science-worthy is why a very small dose of Tylenol is killing the snakes but not bothering anything else. High doses of Tylenol kill people (and other mammals) because the liver metabolizes Tylenol (non-toxic) into a nasty poison called N-acetyl-p-benzoquinone imine, which then kills the liver cells. But in humans, this occurs over time. The snakes die much faster. What's going on?

The answer is methemoglobinemia, a dangerous condition that causes changes in hemoglobin that prevent it from doing its job - carrying oxygen through the bloodstream. Methemoglobinemia is usually caused by consumption of a toxic chemical, such as aniline (I wrote about this condition in humans recently and how it is treated with methylene blue.) The science makes perfect sense.

Snakes - what's the difference?

A recent study gives evidence that the Tylenol caused methemoglobinemia in the snakes, which then died from hypoxia (inadequate oxygen). This would explain why the deaths occurred must faster (about 14 hours) than would be expected for typical Tylenol poisoning.

Some toxicological irony: the snakes died because they lack the enzyme that metabolizes Tylenol and the elevated levels of Tylenol cause the methemoglobinemia followed by hypoxia. But people die because they do have this enzyme, which converts Tylenol to a toxic metabolite that poisons the liver.

Maybe Tylenol isn't as safe as J&J claims.

Perhaps they ought to redesign the box.