Saturday science subject: Why did it have to be snakes?

Ever see an anaconda? Now imagine being stared down by something over twice as long and 30 times as heavy. That about sums up the Titanoboa, a giant snake newly discovered by Jason Head of the University of Toronto and his colleagues. The Not Exactly Rocket Science blog has more details:

Titanoboa's fossilised vertebra showed that it was a whopping 13 metres (42 feet) long. By comparison, the largest verifiable record for a living snake belongs to a 10-metre-long reticulated python, and that was probably a striking exception. Large population surveys of reticulated pythons have failed to find individuals longer than 6 metres. By contrast, Head's team analysed vertebrae from eight different specimens of Titanoboa and found that all of them were roughly the same size. A length of 13 metres was fairly ordinary for this extraordinary serpent. Not quite Jormungandr, but amazing nonetheless.

Aside from the cool factor, the snake's discovery provides hints about the climate of Colombia's Cerrejon basin 58-60 million years ago. The maximum size of a snake depends on the ambient temperature, and according to Head, the Titanoboa's size suggests average yearly temperatures of 32-33°C (90-91°F) in the area.

New Scientist says that's 7°C warmer than the current average. The article also quotes Head as saying this discovery refutes the idea that tropical temperatures don't change if the rest of the world gets hotter.

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