In the rock layers of a vast open-pit coal mine in Colombia, paleontologists have uncovered a fossil of the largest snake known to have existed. The massive 60,000-year-old vertebrae suggest that the creature was about as long as a bus and three feet thick. The discovery team, composed of researchers from Canada, Panama, and the United States, named the snake Titanoboa cerrejonensis (“titanic boa from Cerrejón”) after its size, its close relatives, and the name of the mine. Researchers think Titanoboa would likely have been too large to climb trees like modern boa constrictors. Instead, it probably sought its crocodile prey while swimming through the myriad rivers that cut through its forested coastal habitat.
Beyond being a winning entry in the animal record books, the snake is also a measuring stick for ancient tropical climate. Because the maximum body sizes of some snakes, turtles, crocodiles and other cold-blooded creatures are regulated by the temperature of their surroundings, their size can be used as a temperature gauge. The researchers estimate that the region averaged at least 30-34°C (86 -93°F) 60 million years ago, giving a new data point from which to compare tropical temperature change over time.