Fossils Reveal World’s Largest Snake
43-foot-long reptile shows prehistoric tropics were hotter
The largest snake the world has ever known ruled tropical ecosystems during the Paleocene Epoch, a 10-million-year period immediately following the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, according to an international team of scientists. Fossil vertebrae from the titanic reptile now give scientists new clues about what kind of animals populated the Earth after the demise of the dinos and what their living conditions were.
Partial skeletons of the giant,
boa constrictor-like snake, which the researchers named
“Titanoboa,” were found in the Cerrejon coal mine in
northern Colombia. Before the finding, evidence of
vertebrates living between 65 million and 55 million
years ago in tropical South America was scant, leaving a
very poor understanding of what life was like in the
northern neotropics during that time.
“Now we have a window into the time just after the dinosaurs went extinct and can actually see what the animals replacing them were like,” said Jonathan Bloch, a University of Florida vertebrate paleontologist who led the expedition with Carlos Jaramillo, a paleobotanist from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.
At 43-feet long and 1.25 tons, the snake’s size does matter, because its gigantic dimensions are a sign that temperatures along the equator were once much hotter. Cold-blooded animals rely on surrounding temperatures for body heat, and cold climates simply do not provide enough warmth to heat a large body. So snakes and other cold-blooded animals are limited in size by the ambient temperature of where they live, Bloch said.
“If you look at cold-blooded animals and their distribution on the planet today, the large ones are in the tropics, where it’s hottest, and they become smaller the farther away they are from the equator,” he said.
Based on the snake’s size, the team calculated that the mean annual temperature at equatorial South America 60 million years ago would have been about 91 degrees Fahrenheit—about 10 degrees warmer than today, Bloch said.
The presence of outsized snakes and turtles shows that even 60 million years ago the foundations of the modern Amazonian tropical ecosystem were in place, he said.
At the Florida Museum of Natural History, scientists from University of Florida, Indiana University and the University of Toronto estimated the snake’s length and mass by determining the relationship between backbone size and body size in living snakes and applying that to the fossil vertebrae to figure out body size of the prehistoric snake.
“At its greatest width, the snake would have come up to your hips,” said David Polly of Indiana University.
Researchers say the extinct snake was even larger than the wildest dreams of directors of modern horror movies.
“Truly enormous snakes really spark people’s imagination, but reality has exceeded the fantasies of Hollywood,” said Bloch. “The snake that tried to eat Jennifer Lopez in the movie ‘Anaconda’ is not as big as the one we found.”
A report on this finding appears this week in the journal Nature. It was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, University of London, and Indiana University.
—By Leslie Fink/NSF from materials provided by the University of Florida.
This report is provided by the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, in partnership with U.S. News and World Report. For more information, go to www.nsf.gov.