BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Scientists have recovered fossils from a 60-million-year-old South American snake whose length and weight might make today's anacondas and reticulated pythons seem a bit cuter and more cuddly.
Named Titanoboa cerrejonensis by its discoverers, the size of the snake's vertebrae suggest it weighed 1,140 kilograms (2,500 pounds) and measured 13 meters (42.7 feet) nose to tail tip -- and that's a conservative estimate. A report describing the find appears in this week's Nature.
"At its greatest width, the snake would have come up to about your hips," said Indiana University Bloomington geologist David Polly, who identified the position of the fossil vertebrae, which made a size estimate possible. "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 Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute geologist Carlos Jaramillo and University of Florida, Florida Museum of Natural History vertebrate paleontologist Jonathan Bloch discovered the fossils in the Cerrejon Coal Mine in northern Colombia and investigated what the snake's environment might have been like. Paleontologist Jason Head of the University of Toronto-Mississauga, the Nature report's lead author, used information gleaned by his collaborators to make an estimate of Earth's temperature 58 to 60 million years ago in an area encompassed by modern-day Colombia.
Paleontologists have long known of a rough correlation between a period or epoch's temperature and the size of its poikilotherms (cold-blooded creatures). As the Earth's temperature increases, so does the upper size limit on poikilotherms.
"There are many ways the anatomy of a species is correlated with its environment on broad scales," Polly said. "If we understand these correlations better, we will know more about how climate and climate change affect species, as well as h
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