Paleontologists found the bones of a huge snake in a coal mine in Colombia. A huge, huge snake, more than a ton of boa. It lived back in the Palaeocene.
They found it last year, but it hit the news more recently with the publication of an article in Nature. They're calling the enormous snake Titanoboa cerrejonensis. (Great name. If I had a snake I would definitely name it Titanoboa.)
The New York Times reported that it was 42 feet long. The Los Angeles Times said 43 feet long. In other words, the scientists estimated it at 13 meters long. The newspapers knew that most of us aren't too good with metric measurements, so they did the conversion for us. Thirteen meters is 42.65 feet, so at the LA Times they rounded up and at the NY Times they rounded down. I choose to pretend that tells us something about the difference between the LA Times and NY Times. Both papers gave the number in feet, probably on the theory that 42 or 43 feet long sounds bigger than 14 yards long.
The longest snake we have around these days is the occasional python that gets to 33 feet. Explorers in South America who said there were 100-footers out there, well, they may have been misled by skins that had been stretched. Or maybe they were just woofing.
Titanoboa probably weighed 1,135 kilograms, 2,500 pounds to those of us still in thrall to imperial measurements. (It's as if the French Revolution never happened! It's as if the American Revolution never happened! It's as if NASA never lost a space orbiter due Lockheed Martin's fondness for the pound-second!)
Sadly, there is much we do not know about Titanoboa. What color was it? What were its habits? We know where it slept – wherever it wanted to – but what were its eggs like? Did it coil around them protectively, keeping a vigilant eye out for time travelers who might try to steal an egg and then turn out to be tasty?
Titanoboa ate crocodiles and giant turtles, they say. (The same fossil beds are full of croc and turtle bones.) But I am sure Titanoboa would also eat us, if it met us.
Snakes are cold-blooded. This is thought to put metabolic limits on how big they can get at any given temperature. Which suggests that Titanoboa could only have existed if the climate then averaged 30—34° C. In fact, the point of the Nature article is not 'Holy tenure committee, that snake was huge!' but 'For a snake to have been that huge, the tropics must have been even hotter.'
Titanoboa therefore supports those who say that in the Palaeocene the neotropics were hotter and there was more CO₂ in the air.
So, for those who argue that climate change just means planting different crops in different latitudes, and goodbye to chilly winters, what about creating ideal conditions for giant snakes? Look over your shoulder, you fool – was that the sound of slithering?