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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 02/ 9/2009

Caution: Giant Snakes Ahead

By Andrew Freedman

* A Mild Work Week: Full Forecast | Magenta Sky Photography *

In case you weren't already concerned about the many effects of global climate change, such as melting glaciers, rising sea levels and extreme weather events, last week brought alarming news of yet another potential climate related risk. It was an especially heavy blow for ophidiophobics (those who are afraid of snakes).

According to a new paper in the journal Nature, because of global warming, we're all going to die from giant snakes!!!

The vertebra of an adult Green Anaconda dwarfed by the recently discovered vertebra of the giant snake named Titanoboa cerrejonensis. (Kenneth Krysko - AP)

Don't look yet, but there's one creeping up behind you right now. It's wearing Carhartt pants, a baseball cap and a Washington Nationals t-shirt. Don't be fooled, this is no heating, vacuum and air conditioning technician. It's actually a giant boa constrictor! Run for your lives!!!

Keep reading to understand how global warming may bring massive snakes to your backyard...

Oh wait, false alarm.

Perhaps this panic is a bit overheated, since according to the article, the gargantuan snakes actually lived during a warm period about 58 to 60 million years ago, following the extinction of the dinosaurs, and there is no evidence of their existence today. However, one can never be too careful when snakes are concerned.

The snake has been named the "Titanoboa cerrejonensis," which as it's name suggests means it was both gigantic and a relative of the boa constrictor. The snake remains were found in an open pit coal mine in Colombia, and were sent to the U.S. for analysis. Researchers found the ancient creature weighed more than one ton and measured 42 to 45 feet in length.

That's large enough to scare Indiana Jones back into retirement.

In fact, as was widely reported in the press, the Titanoboa was so huge that it may have eaten crocodiles for breakfast... and perhaps for lunch and dinner too.

Here are some of the analogies used in one University of Florida press release about the Nature article.

"The snake that tried to eat Jennifer Lopez in the movie 'Anaconda' is not as big as the one we found," said Jonathan Bloch, a vertebrate paleontologist studying the snake at the Florida.

In the same press release, Jason Head, a paleontologist at the University of Toronto, stated: "The snake's body was so wide that if it were moving down the hall and decided to come into my office to eat me, it would literally have to squeeze through the door."

Of course, the press release failed to provide crucial information, such as how wide Dr. Head's office door actually is. Optimistically, he could have a tiny door like in the movie "Being John Malkovich," in which case even a present generation of boa constrictor might have trouble squeezing in.

The climate change connection in the story is tenuous but intriguing nonetheless. In order to estimate the climatic conditions at the time when the snake slithered about, the researchers employed a known relationship between the body size of a cold-blooded creature and the average temperature of that creature's environment. They found that the average annual temperature in Colombia when the giant snake was alive might have been about 91 degrees Fahrenheit, which is approximately 10 degrees F warmer than today.

Climate scientists have known that the world as a whole was warmer at that time than it is now, but some scientists think there exists a natural climate feedback in the tropical ocean-atmosphere system that acts to limit the amount of warming in the tropics. The snake finding would seem to refute that idea, known as the "thermostat" hypothesis, put forward in the early 1990s by Veerabhadran Ramanathan and William Collins of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at La Jolla, California.

If the snake study is correct, the tropics could warm up more than is currently estimated under some man made global warming scenarios. And present-day large snakes could get larger... and larger... and, well, you get the point. So perhaps environmental groups should replace images of drowning polar bears with ginormous man-eating snakes in their pamphlets to motivate climate action...

So what can you do? While the size of ancient snakes may not be the most ironclad data there is about the planet's climate history, I suggest shrinking the size of your front door to keep any new Titanoboas out.

By Andrew Freedman  | February 9, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, Humor, Nature  
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Next: Here Come the 60s, Again


Posted by: Mr_Q | February 9, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Stop trying to scare people. Yes, I realize this particular column was half in jest, but normally your columns aren't. Normally, your columns attempt to tie some horrible weather event or catastrophe to the catastrophic man made global warming scam. I don't think you realize the affect you, and people like you, are having.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | February 9, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

I believe the argument was that boid snakes tend to get larger, as the earth's climate gets warmer. It's hard, however, to forecast future results based on past performance. This is why the models "busted" on last week's storm. Things aren't always what they seem to be and things don't always repeat exactly. This seems to be the essence of chaos theory, which governs evolutionary science [sorry, fundamentalists!] as well as meteorology.

It's just as likely that the earth will warm without an increase in the size of boid snakes, as that the earth will warm with such an increase in snake size. [Perhaps the next time it will be the VENOMOUS snakes, not the boids, which increase in size. Then we hominids would be in mighty bad shape, indeed!]

Posted by: Bombo47jea | February 9, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I quote from raiders of the ark movie

" Ssssnakes!!!"

in alexandria va the daffodills are 2 inches high, right on time for Feb 9

Posted by: pvogel88 | February 9, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

If big old snakes are the price we pay for milder temperatures, I say sssssssss!

Posted by: shoveit | February 9, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I've seen a couple very large rat snakes in the backyard over the past couple of years. They can be a little alarming, but they should be good for rodent control. Maybe they get some of the pesky mice and squirrels.

Posted by: spgass1 | February 9, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

One tip is to keep your grass mowed. I let a section go for too long and didn't see the snakes until I was right on top of them.

Posted by: spgass1 | February 9, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

If previous temperates were far warmer than today (enabling this snake), what caused it if not CO2? Do current climate models, when back-tested, reflect this climate?

Posted by: RMVA | February 9, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

This kind of commentary is silly and not useful. Stick to the weather, please.

Posted by: cbrubin | February 9, 2009 6:47 PM | Report abuse

There's a general tendency for fossil animals to have been larger than their current descendants. This holds true for modern birds vs. their theropod ancestors. [Imagine Col. Sanders trying his special mix of herbs and spices on T. rex!]

There are a few exceptions to this rule, most notably horses. The earliest fossils of Eohippus were no larger than a police dog. Try riding that one.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | February 9, 2009 7:26 PM | Report abuse

RMVA: Good question. I don't know that scientists have an answer for that specific time period, in terms of what was the dominant forcing at work, CO2 or another mechanism, but in general they have a fairly good understanding of the climate forcings throughout history, be they orbital fluctuations, solar variability, or volcanic eruptions.

Keep in mind that the giant snakes are thought to have lived in the hot climate that followed the demise of the dinosaurs. One of the theories for the death of the dinosaurs is the release of huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere due to the impact of an asteroid(s), which altered the climate and restricted food supplies.

Paleoclimate reconstructions are fascinating to explore, I suggest taking a look at the NOAA paleoclimate page for starters. If any other readers have suggestions for good web resources on the subject, please post them in comments as well.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | February 10, 2009 1:00 AM | Report abuse

CO2 and other gasses? I thought that the leading theory was that particulate matter generated by the asteroid collision blasted into the atmosphere where it attenuated the sun.

Posted by: RMVA | February 10, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

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