The largest serpent fossil in the world
"An open rock marked with the veins of a leaf was the first sign that the ground I trod on was a window into the past", taken from El Tiempo, Sunday February 8, 2009.
In the process of removing and handling overburden and coal in the usual mining process at Cerrejón, interesting palaeontological discoveries have been made, including fossils of: turtle shells, a giant palm leaf, a crab, a flower, and others. However, the one that has claimed the most attention is the fossil of a serpent vertebra that is larger than scientific expectations. The researchers who led the studies to establish the size and weight of the serpent, named it Titanoboa cerrejonensis, meaning "colossal boa of Cerrejón".
The Titanoboa lived 60 million years ago in Colombia and was as big as a bus. The finding of the remains of the largest serpent in the world has shattered the preconceptions of more than one person. These remains serve to shed light on the climate and the environment this reptile lived in. Its official name of Titanoboa cerrejonensis was awarded because of its size, which is important here, and because of the Cerrejón coal mine where it was found.
Titanoboa fought titanic battles with a formidable foe.
The fossil bones were found in early 2007 and were sent to the Smithsonian Institution for analysis and interpretation. However, palaeontology requires a lot of patience. In order to determine that it was a serpent, they had to keep searching until they had found the bones of another 28 specimens. It was not until early February in 2009 that Nature magazine, a globally recognized scientific publication, published the finding and revealed important data.
According to Nature magazine, the serpent was 13 to 14 metres long and weighed over 1,145 kilos. It is estimated to have lived 58 to 60 million years ago. In comparison, current anacondas and pythons do not exceed 6.5 metres in length.
In addition, Nature states that this finding reveals the first known fossilized tropical forest on the planet.
"It is the largest serpent the world has known" confirmed Jason Head, of the University of Toronto Mississauga, the main author of the study and a member of the international team that analysed the fossils. Head compared the reptile with a bus and the body was so wide it would not have fit through the door of a room without contracting first.
"This discovery gives us a unique and important vision of the past" stated Jonathan Bloch of the University of Florida, who led the expedition to Colombia together with Carlos Jaramillo from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.
The size of the reptile is revealing since the size of serpents and other cold-blooded animals depends on the temperature of their habitat. Head and Bloch calculate that, given its size, Titanoboa needed an annual average temperature of 30 to 34 degrees centigrade to survive, which is as much as six degrees warmer than the current average temperature in the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena (28ºC).
Carlos Jaramillo has explained that scientists know from plant fossils found in the area of Cerrejón, which today is arid, that it was a tropical forest in the Palaeocene period from which the Titanoboa dates. "During the Palaeocene, the CO2 levels in the atmosphere were double current ones and the tropical jungle survived at 32 degrees, five above those logged currently in those forests", the botanist pointed out. He has outlined the implications of this discovery in the understanding of climate evolution. According to the authors of the study, these data would cast doubt on the notion that tropical vegetation could disappear at higher temperatures such as those predicted for coming centuries.
Some interesting data about the Titanoboa finding:
The size of the serpent's vertebrae suggests it weighed 1,140 kilograms and measured 13 metres from its nose to the tip of its tail.
At its widest point, the serpent, spread out along the ground, would have reached up to about our waist. The size is truly amazing.
Geologist David Polly from the University of Indiana identified the position of the fossil vertebrae. Geologist Carlos Jaramillo of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Jonathan Bloch, a vertebrate palaeontologist from the University of Florida, discovered the fossil at the Cerrejón coal mine in northern Colombia. They investigated what the environment of the serpent would have been like when it was alive.
The scientists classified Titanoboa as a type of non-venomous constrictor that includes the anacondas and boas.