In a coal mine in Colombia, researchers have unearthed the fossilized remains of the mother of all snakes, a nightmarish tropical behemoth as long as a school bus and as heavy as a Volkswagen Beetle [Los Angeles Times]. The new species, named Titanoboa cerrejonensis, is related to modern boa constrictors, but those descendants are puny in comparison to their primordial ancestor. Titanoboa grew up to 43 feet long and weighed about 2,500 pounds, researchers say, making it the largest snake on record.
The researchers used a known mathematical relationship between the size of vertebrae and the length of the body in living snakes to estimate the size of the ancient animal [BBC News]. Researchers say the ancient boa lived in the wet, tropical rainforest about 60 million years ago, and may have dined on giant turtles and primitive crocodiles–the fossilized remains of those animals were found near the snake fossils. But the extinct snake isn’t just interesting because of its superlative size; researchers also used it to investigate the Earth’s climate in the snake’s day.
In their report, published in Nature [subscription required], researchers asked how warm the Earth would have had to be to support a cold-blooded animal that weighed 2,500 pounds. Extrapolating from the energy requirements of modern snakes, the team estimated that Titanoboa required an average yearly temperature of 86 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit, somewhat higher than the modern average of about 83 degrees in coastal Colombia [Los Angeles Times].
Climatologist Matthew Huber, who wasn’t involved in the study, says that the researchers conclusions call into question the “thermostat hypothesis,” which posits that tropical temperatures stay relatively stable even when the rest of the planet heats up. “The discovery in Colombia of a giant species of fossil snake is news in itself. But a wider, more controversial inference to be drawn is that tropical climate in the past was not buffered from global warming” [Telegraph], he says. And that should goad researchers into investigating how the rainforests may change due to the current global warming trend, says Huber.
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Image: Jason Bourque