Show Me The Science Month Day 10

A pressing grant deadline is going to keep today's evolution blog entry short, but the find is no less spectacular than yesterday's fetal proto-whale fossil. A group of researchers has discovered the fossil vertebra of the largest snake known to date. At an estimated 13 meters (about 42.6 feet) long, this monster, named appropriately Titanoboa, lived in tropical South America about 60 million years ago.

Fossils help us to recover details of the Earth's past, and not just with regard to the actual organisms themselves. Fossil palm fronds in Wyoming are clear evidence that the area around today's chilly Grand Tetons was once a tropical paradise. A giant snake fossil can be a similar indicator of the past climate. The snake's discoverers used the snake's size to make an estimate of the tropical temperatures the animal lived in. How tropical temperatures respond during planetary warming or cooling phases has been a controversial point for climate scientists, but Titanoboa gives us a clue. Snakes are not warm-blooded, which means their body temperature depends on the ambient air temperature. To satisfy the energy requirements of a 1 ton snake, the scientists estimate that the ambient temperature had to be around 90 degrees Farenheit, which is significantly warmer than previous estimates.

Titanoboa is one of those finds that fires up our imaginations about the past. It is also an example of how fossils are powerful clues about the Earth's history.

Join me tomorrow, here at Adaptive Complexity, for day 11 of 30 Days of Evolution Blogging Evolution as a science is alive and well. Each day I will blog about a paper related to evolution published in 2009.