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One-tonne 40ft snake prowled superhot prehistoric jungles

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Scientists say they have discovered fossil remains of a colossal prehistoric snake that once roamed the superheated Paleocene jungles of South America. The one-tonne Titanoboa cerrejonensis would have been more than 40 feet long and ten feet around at its thickest.

Investigating brainboxes say the mighty snake's huge size was made possible by the significantly higher temperatures on Earth 60m years ago. The size of cold-blooded creatures such as snakes is limited by the warmth of their environment.

"The size is pretty amazing," said David Polly of Indiana University. "We went a step further and asked, how warm would the Earth have to be to support a body of this size?"

Collaboration with Carlos Jaramillo of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Toronto paleontologist Jason Head produced an answer: 30°C to 34°C. This is noticeably hotter than present-day temperatures in Colombia, where the mega-snake fossils were found in a coal mine. Modern Colombian rainforest temperatures average out at 27°C, too cold for the monster snakes to survive.

"Tropical ecosystems of South America were surprisingly different 60m years ago," said Jonathan Bloch of Florida Uni, who found the fossils along with Jaramillo.

"It was a rainforest, like today, but it was even hotter and the cold-blooded reptiles were substantially larger. The result was, among other things, the largest snakes the world has ever seen."

The scientists believe that the Titanoboa would be like a vastly enlarged version of modern boa constrictors or anacondas, crushing its prey to death in its mighty coils before devouring it. Even ordinary anacondas have been known on occasion to perform gut-busting feats such as scoffing entire jaguars, so the Titanoboa would presumably have been quite capable of polishing off much larger creatures when it felt seriously hungry.

According to Jaramillo, the upward trend in global temperatures over recent decades might actually be good for rainforests, the "lungs of the planet" - not bad.

"These data challenge the view that tropical vegetation lives near its climatic optimum and has profound implications for understanding the effect of current global warming on tropical plants," said the Smithsonian boffin.

In other words, should global warming trends continue upward, the world's tropical jungles might flourish rather than dying out - and so turn all the increased CO2 into oxygen. That's assuming, of course, that the rainforests have not all been cut down and turned into biofuel plantations or something.

However, there might be a downside in the form of titanic snakes able to crumple up small buildings like paper cups and devour human beings like canapés.

The assembled brainboxes report their findings in this week's edition of prestigious boffinry journal Nature. ®

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