Snakes worthy of our nightmares

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By The Staff

Earlier this month local authorities in California warned residents that a 23-foot long python was on the loose. The 130-pound female snake, which belongs to Brandon Dennis, is large enough to eat small children.

The enormous python was later found basking in the sun in a backyard “several blocks” from Brandon’s home.  There were no immediate reports of missing children or pets, so it’s likely the snake’s day on-the-town resulted in nothing more than heart palpitations for the neighbors.

Brandon and another young man combined forces to carry the mega-python home. Local authorities say they will not cite the python for violating any ordinances, as there are no leash laws for snakes in the locality.

The snakes that pop up in my nightmares are always rattlers, the kind of snake I’ve met outdoors all my life in the rural West.

Until reading about the California incident in the news, it’s never occurred to me to fear a snake that’s basically my own size and would happily down a whole Beagle for lunch.

But if you want to truly fuel your nightmares, consider the remains of a reptile made public earlier this month. Part of a fossil snake in Colombia was discovered that is the largest snake ever known.

The reptile is estimated to have been more than 40 feet long and it weighed a bit over a ton. If you stood near the middle of the beast, it would come up to about your hips.

Scientists estimate the snake ate animals roughly the size of a cow. 

The fossil was discovered in a coalmine. Coal is essentially a fossilized swamp and the swamp was the great snake’s home.

Scientists announced the enormous snake was a non-venomous constrictor. Today that group includes our largest modern snake, the anaconda. Like the fossil snake, the anaconda lives in and around water. 

The mega-snake fossil was in coal that was laid down just after the era of the dinosaurs. The time that the great beast was slithering over the Earth was the period in which large flightless birds, a bit like an ostrich, were starting to do well in the world, filling the vacuum the dinos had left.

That was the same time during which our own clan, the mammals, was beginning to diversify and prosper.

It turned out that our group, the mammals, did better and better as time went along (yeah, team!). Large, grazing mammals flourished, and then whales and bats arrive on the scene.

Whales and bats are significant because they are mammals that can live in the sea and the air – showing our group is versatile as well as abundant.  

But let’s go back to the mega-snake that was slithering around 60 million years ago. The snake’s very existence gives us a big clue about the climate of the day.

To put it another way, there’s a reason pythons and anacondas don’t do well in the Yukon.

It’s just a fact of nature that truly large, cold-blooded animals require fiercely warm climates.  It’s estimated that the mega-snake lived in a world where the average, year-round temperature was close to 90 degrees.

That’s roughly 10 degrees warmer than typical modern tropics.

I once spent a summer in New Jersey and thought I knew what oppressive heat and humidity could be, but the mega-snake lived in times that make even July in Jersey look invigoratingly cool and dry.

Long after the mega-snake had been buried in its swamp, the climate gradually cooled. Over millions of years, as the grazing mammals and then the bats and whales arrived on the scene and flourished, Earth eased toward the climate of the modern geological epoch.

Ultimately, the globe’s climate cooled to the point that the great glaciers of the Ice Age could advance over much of the world.

The great change in global temperature may well have guaranteed that modern snakes are relatively small, like the 130-pound python that slithered around a neighborhood in California recently putting Beagles and toddlers at risk.

In other words, the upside to shoveling snow and paying steep heating bills is that we don’t have to deal with snakes that can eat animals the size of cows.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters is a native of the rural Northwest, but was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Questions about science or energy for future Rock Docs can be sent to epeters@wsu.edu. This column is a service of the College of Sciences at Washington State University.