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In the Real World

History and Taxonomy

Paleontology

In 2007, two University of Florida graduate students made an HUGE discovery (literally). Their lab had been exploring a coal mine (Cerrejón) in Colombia for several years, looking for fossils in the exposed rocks. These fossils dated back about 60 million years. After each trip, they brought their loot back to the lab in Florida to study and preserve the specimens.

One night, after most of the lab had already gone home, Alex Hastings had a hunch that the huge vertebral bone he was holding was not from a crocodile, as it had been labeled. His labmate Jason Bourque was a specialist in reptiles, among other things, so Hastings checked with him. Without skipping a beat, he identified it as coming from a snake. Suddenly, Hastings knew that he was holding a bone from the largest snake ever discovered. It was at least ten times bigger than the vertebrae of anacondas, the largest extant (living) snakes on Earth (see picture). So they dubbed their snake Titanoboa cerrejonensis, after the coalmine where it was found it.

After looking through their bone collection again, they went to Colombia to dig some more. Everything they found confirmed their guess that the bone came from a huge snake. In total, they found 100 fossilized vertebrae from 28 different snakes of the same kind, plus there was a preserved skull, which is really rare for snakes since their skull bones are so delicate. Comparing their sizes and shapes and the number of vertebrae in the longest intact fossils, the experts deduced an approximate size for the snake: about 43 feet long, 3 feet in diameter and weighing in at one ton.

After estimating the snake's size, the team could even estimate what the temperatures must have been in that region of the world at that time. Snakes are ectothermic (cold-blooded), which means that their bodies cannot warm themselves. They derive all of their warmth from the environment. The smaller the snake, the less heat it takes to get warm. The bigger the snake, the more heat it needs.

Indeed, we see this trend throughout the world. The biggest snakes live closest to the equator. The trend is so consistent that we can predict the climate of a snake based on its size. And that is what scientists have done for Titanoboa, concluding that average temperatures were warmer than they thought, hovering between 86 ºF and 93 ºF. Because Earth is cooler now than it was then, we no longer have such huge snakes, or other enormous reptiles, for that matter—something to be grateful for.

Now for its taxonomic classification and name. As a snake, the scientists already knew its taxonomy to a certain extent. It belongs to Domain Eukarya, Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Subphylum Vertebrata, Class Reptilia, Order Squamata, and Suborder Serpentes. What was unclear at that point was whether it should be classified in the Family Boidae (as a boa) or Phythonidae (as a python). Carefully comparing the bones of boas, phythons, and their huge mystery snake, the experts decided that it's more similar to a boa than a phython, so it was classified in the Family Boidae and the Subfamily Boinae. Now the question is whether it is part of the Genus Boa, or the Genus Eunectes (the anacondas), or whether it needs its own genus. It is more similar to a boa than an anaconda except that it has more teeth than boas normally do (nowadays). That fact, plus its enormous size, led the team to classify it as a new genus, Titanoboa, think Titanic. The species gets the full name Titanoboa cerrejonensis, named for the coal mine where it was found. And there you have it: a modern day taxonomy story of gigantic proportions.

The story about how the fossils were found can be found here.

Learn about how a life-size model was made here.

Videos can be found here.

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