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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 02/09/2009

Caution: Giant Snakes Ahead

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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!!!


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  |  10:30 AM ET, 02/09/2009

Categories:  Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change

 
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