Titanoboa, terror of the Eocene

Titanoboa cerrejonensis by Jason Bourque If you think a green anaconda or a reticulated python is too large for comfort, be glad you didn’t live 60 million years ago. Then you would have had to deal with Titanoboa cerrejonensis. While modern snakes max out at 10 or 11 metres in length, Titanoboa is estimated to have been a mind-boggling 13 metres long and to have weighed more than a ton. The fossil boa was discovered in a coal mine in northeastern Colombia, and is described in this week’s issue of Nature. As usual with fossil snakes, we’re dealing with fossil vertebrae, not a complete skeleton. National Geographic News, National Science Foundation, Newsweek Lab Notes.

Apart from the fact that as a big fricking fossil snake, Titanoboa is inherently cool, it also has something to say about how warm the Earth was during the Eocene. Temperature imposes an upper size limit on cold-blooded animals. For Titanoboa to survive, it would have needed temperatures three to six degrees warmer than are currently found in modern-day Colombia. So this snake may have an answer to the question of what happens when the Earth warms up: Do the tropics stay relatively stable while the temperate zones heat up, or do the tropics get hotter too? Titanoboa suggests the latter.

(Art credit: Jason Bourque, University of Florida.)