A Snake the Size of a Bus

Feb 4, 2009 3:38pm

Have a phobia about snakes?  Then be grateful you lived 60 million years later than Titanoboa cerrejonensis.  It was at least 42 feet long.  It probably weighed more than 2,500 pounds.  It was big enough to eat a cow, as more than one headline writer enthuses, though it probably snacked on early crocodiles.  The fossil was found in Colombia by a team headed by Jason Head of the University of Toronto, and is probably related to the modern-day Anaconda.  But Anacondas — like the six-foot Python in Head’s photograph below — were pipsqueaks compared to Titanoboa. The pentagonal rock in the picture is one of the fossilized vertebrae of the ancient snake.  Do a little eyeballing (Head’s team was more precise than this), and you’ll figure that the ancient snake was about six times larger than the Python slithering by in the photo. Nature, which published Head’s paper on the discovery, has a version of the story HERE.  You can also find various news outlets having fun with the find — look at Canada.com or USA Today. Hate to inject a note of seriousness into what was turning out to be a great monster-snake story, but Titanoboa does tell us something about the climate of the Paleocene epoch (several million years after the last dinosaurs), and it goes against what’s been believed up until now.  It suggests either that the tropics back then were a lot warmer than scientists thought, or they need to revise their beliefs about how temperature affects animals’ size.   It’s been believed that cold-blooded animals are limited in size by the temperature around them (that’s why you find big, gross bugs closer to the equator).  For Titanoboa to have grown to 40 feet, if it was anything like modern snakes, the average temperature around it — not the daytime high — would have had to be around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. At any rate, if you see anything like this behemoth in your neighborhood, please call a paleontologist.  After you call the police. (Image courtesy Jason Head/University of Toronto.)

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