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At 2,500 Pounds And 43 Feet, Prehistoric Snake Is Largest On Record
artist's rendering of Titanoboa cerrejonensis demonstrates the great
snake's size. It is anticipated the boa spent much of its life in or
near water. (Credit: Copyright Jason Bourque, University of Florida)
ScienceDaily (Feb. 4, 2009) — The largest snake the world has ever known -- as
long as a school bus
and as heavy as a small car -- ruled tropical ecosystems only 6 million
years after the demise of the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex, according to
a new discovery published in the journal Nature.
Partial skeletons of a new giant, boa constrictor-like snake named
"Titanoboa" found in Colombia by an international team of scientists
and now at the University of Florida are estimated to be 42 to 45 feet
long, the length of the T-Rex "Sue" displayed at Chicago's Field
Museum, said Jonathan Bloch, a UF vertebrate paleontologist who co-led
the expedition with Carlos Jaramillo, a paleobotanist from the
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.
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, who is
studying the snake at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF
campus. "The snake that tried to eat Jennifer Lopez in the movie
'Anaconda' is not as big as the one we found."
Jason Head, a paleontologist at the University of Toronto in
Mississauga and the paper's senior author, described it this way: "The
snake's body was so wide that if it were moving down the hall and
decided to come into my office to eat me, it would literally have to
squeeze through the door."
Besides tipping the scales at an estimated 1.25 tons, the snake
lived during the Paleocene Epoch, a 10-million-year period immediately
following the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, Bloch
The scientists also found many skeletons of giant turtles and
extinct primitive crocodile relatives that likely were eaten by the
snake, he said. "Prior to our work, there had been no fossil
vertebrates found between 65 million and 55 million years ago in
tropical South America, leaving us with a very poor understanding of
what life was like in the northern Neotropics," he said. "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."
Size does matter because the snake's gigantic dimensions are a sign
that temperatures along the equator were once much hotter. That is
because snakes and other cold-blooded animals are limited in body 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
Based on the snake's size, the team was able to calculate 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.
Fossil hunting is usually difficult in the forest-covered tropics
because of the lack of exposed rock, Bloch said. But excavations in the
Cerrejon Coal Mine in Northern Colombia exposed the rock and offered an
unparalleled opportunity for discovery, he said.
After the team brought the fossils to the Florida Museum of Natural
History, it was UF graduate students Alex Hastings and Jason Bourque
who first recognized they belonged to a giant snake, Bloch said. Head,
an expert on fossil snakes, worked with David Polly, a paleontologist
at the University of Indiana, to estimate the snake's length and mass
by determining the relationship between body size and vertebral --
backbone -- size in living snakes and using that relationship to figure
out body size of the fossil snake based on its vertebrae.
Harry W. Greene, professor in the department of ecology and
evolutionary biology at Cornell University and one of the world's
leading snake experts, said the "colossal" ancient boa researchers
found has "important implications for snake biology and our
understanding of life in the ancient tropics."
"The giant Colombian snake is a truly exciting discovery," said
Greene, who wrote the book "Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in
Nature." "For decades herpetologists have argued about just how big
snakes can get, with debatable estimates of the max somewhat less than
Funding for the fieldwork came from National Science Foundation, the
Smithsonian Institution, Carbones del Cerrejón LLC (Colombia), the
Geological Society of America, and the Florida Museum of Natural
History, University of Florida.
1. . Giant boid snake from the Palaeocene neotropics reveals hotter
past equatorial temperatures. Nature, 5 February 2009
Adapted from materials provided by University of Florida.
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University of Florida (2009, February 4). At 2,500 Pounds And 43 Feet,
Prehistoric Snake Is Largest On Record. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 4,
2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090204112217.htm
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