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Fossil of 43-foot super snake Titanoboa found in Colombia

Researchers excavating a coal mine in South America have found the fossilized remains of the mother of all snakes, a nightmarish tropical behemoth as long as a school bus and as heavy as a Volkswagen Beetle.

Modern boas and anacondas, which average less than 20 feet in length and reach a maximum of 30 feet, have been known to swallow Chihuahuas, cats and other small pets, but this prehistoric monster ate giant turtles and primitive crocodiles.

"This is amazing. It challenges everything we know about how big a snake can be," said herpetologist Jack Conrad of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who was not involved in the research.

The estimated length, 43 feet, "is the same as the largest Tyrannosaurus rex that we know of, although it only weighs one-sixth as much," he added.

- Click here to see 74 photos of ugly, strange and scary-looking animals

The find sheds new light on snake evolution, but it also provides telling insights into climate. Because Titanoboa cerrejonensis , as it has been named, was coldblooded, the tropical climate had to be six to eight degrees warmer than it is today for a snake that large to survive.

The fossils of several specimens of the snake are from a cache of fossils excavated from the open-pit Cerrejon coal mine in Colombia. Paleontologists are excited about the find because there are few fossils of tropical vertebrates from the 10-million-year period after the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Most rock outcroppings that might contain fossils have been hidden by the region's dense foliage, said evolutionary biologist Jason Head of the University of Toronto Mississauga, lead author of a paper on the fossils appearing Thursday in the journal Nature. The coal mining exposed them.

"Now we have a window into the time just after the dinosaurs went extinct, and can actually see what the animals replacing them were like," he said in a statement.

Titanoboa was probably the largest non-marine creature living on Earth during that period, he said.

The team also unearthed the remains of a variety of turtles and crocodiles that were probably the giant snake's primary diet. "Prior to our work, there had been no fossil vertebrates found between 65 million and 55 million years ago in tropical South America," Head said.

Snakes are generally able to swallow prey that weighs about the same as they do, Conrad said. Modern photos show reticulated pythons eating deer that weigh 120 to 150 pounds, he said. This snake, weighing in at 2,500 pounds, "could eat a large cow or a bison" -- if there had been any around.

Instead, it probably had to settle for other reptiles, sliding into the water and gulping them down in ferocious strikes.

Extrapolating from the energy requirements of modern snakes, the team estimated that Titanoboa required an average yearly temperature of 86 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit, somewhat higher than the modern average of about 83 degrees in coastal Colombia.

Researchers now believe that the climate got even hotter after this period, perhaps hastening the snake's ultimate demise. "Big animals went extinct because it simply got too hot," Conrad said. "This helps us to understand that the effects of global warming aren't just rising sea levels."

- Click here to see 74 photos of ugly, strange and scary-looking animals

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