Fossil of three-foot thick, super-gigantic snake unearthed

February 5th, 2009 - 6:23 pm ICT by IANS  

London, Feb 5 (IANS) Scientists have stumbled on the remains of a 60-million-year-old snake whose sheer size, thickness and weight boggles the imagination, and beside which anacondas and pythons today would seem like playthings.Named Titanoboa cerrejonensis by its discoverers, the snake’s vertebrae suggest it weighed 1,140 kg or 1.14 tonnes, and measured 13 metres or 42.7 feet in length.

Jason Head and David Polly carried out much of the quantitative work behind the discovery whilst working at the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London; they identified the position of the fossil vertebrae which made a size estimate possible.

Now based at the University of Indiana in the US, Polly said: “At its greatest width, the snake would have come up to about your hips. The size is pretty amazing. But our team went a step further and asked, how warm would the Earth have to be to support a body of this size?”

Crews led by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History discovered the fossils in the Cerrejon Coal Mine in northern Colombia, and together with lead-author Jason Head, now of the University of Toronto-Mississauga, used its size to make an estimate of Earth’s temperature 58 to 60 million years ago in tropical South America.

Palaeontologists have long known of a rough correlation between an age’s temperature and the size of its poikilotherms (cold-blooded creatures). Over geological time, as ages get warmer, so does the upper size limit on poikilotherms.

Assuming the earth today is not particularly unusual, Jonathan Bloch, assistant curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, estimated a snake of Titanoboa’s size would have required an average annual temperature of 30 to 34 degrees Celsius (86 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit) to survive.

By comparison, the average yearly temperature of today’s Cartagena, a Colombian coastal city, is about 28°C, said an Indiana release. The scientists classify Titanoboa as a boine snake, a type of non-venomous constrictor that includes anacondas and boas.

The discovery appears in this week’s Nature.

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