Shop Windows to the Universe

The Winter 2010 issue of The Earth Scientist includes a variety of educational resources, ranging from astronomy to glaciers. Check out the other publications and classroom materials in our online store.
This illustration shows the size of the prehistoric fossil snake. The boa likely spent much of its life in or near water.
Click on image for full size
Courtesy of Jason Bourque, University of Florida

Prehistoric Fossil Snake is Largest on Record
News story originally written on February 4, 2009

Scientists have recovered fossils from a 60-million-year-old South American snake whose length and weight might make today's anacondas seem like garter snakes.

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.

A paper describing the find appears in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

"At its greatest width, the snake would have come up to about your hips," said geologist David Polly of Indiana University, who identified the position of the fossil vertebrae, which made an estimate possible. "The size is pretty amazing. We went a step further and asked, how warm would the Earth have to be to support a body of this size?"

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute geologist Carlos Jaramillo and University of Florida 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, the Nature paper's lead author, made an estimate of Earth's temperature 58 to 60 million years ago in an area encompassed by modern-day Colombia.

"Scientists have long known of a rough correlation between a period or epoch's temperature and the size of its poikilotherms [cold-blooded creatures]," said Paul Filmer, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Division of Earth Sciences, which co-funded the research. "As Earth's temperature increases, so does the upper size limit on poikilotherms."

"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 change affects species, as well as how we can infer things about past climates from species that lived then."

Head estimated that a snake of Titanoboa's size would have required an average annual temperature of 30 to 34 degrees Celsius (86 to 93 Fahrenheit) to survive. By comparison, the average yearly temperature of today's Cartagena, a Colombian coastal city, is about 83 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Tropical ecosystems of South America were surprisingly different 60 million years ago," said Bloch. "It was a rainforest, like today, but it was even hotter and the cold-blooded reptiles were substantially larger. The result was, among other things, the largest snakes the world has ever seen."

The tropical rainforest at Cerrejon appears to have thrived at a temperature of 32 degrees Celsius, five degrees warmer than the upper temperature limit for tropical rainforests in modern times.

"These data challenge the view that tropical vegetation lives near its climatic optimum, and has profound implications for understanding the effect of current global warming on tropical plants," said Jaramillo.

Evolution has produced a variety of gigantic animals over the last several hundred million years--dinosaurs, ancient dragonflies and today's blue whale, to name a few. Why some species' lineages produce monsters remains a matter of debate among evolutionary biologists and ecologists.

The scientists classify Titanoboa as a boine snake, a type of non-venomous constrictor that includes anacondas and boas.

Polly extrapolated the placement of Titanoboa fossil vertebrae by comparing the fossils' structure to the vertebrae of today's boine snakes.

Snake vertebrae become larger near a snake's midsection, but they are also structured differently than vertebrae closer to a snake's head or tail.

Using a computer model, Polly estimated that the fossil vertebrae originated near Titanoboa's middle. Therefore, the snake could have been even larger than it appears.

Also contributing to the Nature report were Alexander Hastings, Jason Bourque, Fabiany Herrera and Edwin Cadena of the University of Florida.

The project was co-funded by the Smithsonian Institution, Carbones del Cerrejon LLC (Colombia), Geological Society of America, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, University of London and Indiana University.

Text above is courtesy of the National Science Foundation

Last modified March 27, 2009 by Lisa Gardiner.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

Our online store includes books on science education, classroom activities in The Earth Scientist, mineral and fossil specimens, and educational games!

Windows to the Universe Community

News

Opportunities

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

Tropical Rain Forest Reptiles

The tropical rain forests of the world are full of reptiles. Reptiles are cold blooded, which means their body temperature depends on their environment. So, it is important for them to stay in warm climates....more

Tropical Rainforests

Tropical rainforests are home to thousands of species of animals, plants, fungi and microbes. Scientists suspect that there are many species living in rainforests have not yet been found or described....more

Global Warming: Scientists Say Earth Is Heating Up

Earth’s climate is warming. During the 20th Century Earth’s average temperature rose 0.6° Celsius (1.1°F). Scientists are finding that the change in temperature has been causing other aspects of our planet...more

Evidence of Evolution

This Windows to the Universe Exploratour examines the scientific evidence of biological evolution. Take the tour to travel through 10 web pages about the scientific theory that explains how and why living...more

Triggers of Volcanic Eruptions in Oregon's Mount Hood Investigated

A new study has found that a mixing of two different types of magma is the key to the historic eruptions of Mount Hood, Oregon's tallest mountain, and that eruptions often happen in a relatively short...more

Oldest Earth Mantle Reservoir Discovered

Researchers have found a primitive Earth mantle reservoir on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. Geologist Matthew Jackson and his colleagues from a multi-institution collaboration report the finding--the...more

It’s Not Your Fault – A Typical Fault, Geologically Speaking, That Is

Some geologic faults that appear strong and stable, slip and slide like weak faults. Now an international team of researchers has laboratory evidence showing why some faults that 'should not' slip are...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF