Discovery of world's largest snake has clues for global warming
South American researchers have unearthed the vertebrae of the largest snake ever discovered. It dwarfs the largest recorded snakes alive today, at four times the weight and almost 1.5 times the length.
Titanoboa was 13m (42ft) long - about the length of a bus - and lived in the rainforest of north-east Colombia 58-60 million years ago.
The snake was so wide it would have reached up to a person's hips, say researchers, who have estimated that it weighed more than a tonne.
Green anacondas - the world's heaviest snakes - reach a mere 250kg (550lbs).
Reticulated pythons - the world's longest snakes - can reach up to 10m (32ft).
The snake was native to the rainforests of Colombia and lived around 58 to 60 million years ago.
South American collegues of author and lead vertebrate palaeontologist Jason Head, of the University of Toronto in Canada, sent him photos via internet in order to confirm their findings.
Head's colleagues discovered fossilized vertebrae and ribs from 28 individual snakes in an open-pit coal mine at Cerrejón. The vertebrae's structure suggests the snake is closely related to the boa constrictor, leading the team to name the species Titanoboa cerrejonensis, or 'titanic boa from Cerrejon'.
They also discovered the remains of possible prey, which could include crocodiles. This is the largest reptile discovered which would have been alive following the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago.
Assuming that the snake was cold-blooded, its massive body would have required incredibly high ambient temperatures in order for it to survive. Researchers believe that the temperature of the rainforest would needed to have been between 30 and 34 degrees Celsius.
This finding could completely revolutionize what scientists previously believed about global warming - the idea that, while temperatures are rising in other areas, that the rainforests are relatively protected from climate change and tend not to see major shifts in temperature. It had been thought that rain forest temperatures would not exceed the high 20s Celsius. This was called the "thermostat hypothesis."
If rain forest could indeed see such an increase, it supports the idea that temperatures could increase across the board, over all regions of the world, as they are today. This implies that the world has seen such an increase and survived it.
However, evolutionary biologist Harry Greene, of Cornell University, points out that length and weight records for today's snakes may just be conservative estimates, and that much larger snakes could possibly exist today. If this is true, than scientists would need to re-think the ambient temperature that large snakes require to survive, and the temperature that Titanaboa survived at could have been lower.
The study was published in the science journal, Nature.
Also see Barry Artiste's article here!