World's Biggest Snake Lived in 1st "Modern" Rain Forest

October 13, 2009

If it were still alive today, the largest snake ever known to have lived would feel right at home in South America's tropical rain forests.

That's because the modern ecosystem contains many of the same plants that grew in the massive serpent's home turf some 60 million years ago, according to a new study detailing the earliest known "modern" rain forest.

The study is based on more than 2,000 fossil leaves recently discovered in Colombia's Cerrejón coal mine—the same place where scientists had found fossils of Titanoboa cerrejonesis earlier this year.

Many of the newfound plant fossils are of palm, legume, and flowering species that still dominate South America's rain forests, said study team member Scott Wing, a paleontologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

"That was kind of surprising," Wing said. "What we're seeing here is the first modern rain forest that we have any record of."

Forest Recovery

Based on the fossil leaves, scientists think Titanoboa's rain forest was a few degrees warmer and contained fewer plant species than the modern version.

This lower diversity could be evidence that the ancient forests were still recovering from the catastrophic event that killed off the dinosaurs some five million years earlier, the scientists say.

The team thinks a dino-killer asteroid may have struck several hundred miles away from Colombia, in what is now Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. Such an impact could have triggered forest fires and worldwide climate change.

(Related: "'Dino Killer' Asteroid Was Half the Size Predicted?")

In fact, pollen fossils from before the impact show that South America's dino-era forests were dramatically different from the tropical rain forests Titanoboa called home.

The plant species that existed alongside the world's largest snake were so successful that many of them survived to the modern day.

Findings detailed in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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